Being the nerd I am, I gobble up as many health-related articles, books, and pieces of literature I can get my hands on. The most recent of which is the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain by Dr. John J. Ratey.
For too many reasons to list here, I find the book absolutely fascinating! And while Dr. Ratey does a great job of simplifying complex scientific concepts as much as a super smart science-y guy can, I still find myself googling the anatomy of the brain and looking up acronyms. So I’m taking a stab at simplifying even further to share it here because it’s something that every single one of us can benefit from.
We Evolved to Move
“That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” – Rodolfo Llinás, neurophysiologist. (if you didn’t get it the first time, that’s ok – I had to read it 3 or 4 times until it sunk in)
While it seems obvious, we evolved as moving animals. But it was two-fold – movement meant finding more food, and finding more food meant more energy for higher levels of brain power. So we got creative in the ways we moved around, constructed shelters, stored food and so on.
We even got so damn good at it that in today’s world we don’t HAVE to move to survive. We engineered movement right out of our lives. Little did we know that moving is how we got so creative and were able to dream up all this helpful technology.
Physical activity primes the brain for learning; it affects mood, anxiety, and attention; it reduces stress and can help reduce the effects of aging. Think of physical activity as the brain balancer – it doesn’t increase or decrease one specific thing, but it balances it all out with the amazing results of increasing motivation, focus, creativity, memory pathways, brain signaling efficiency and more.
A Bit of History
Way back since the beginning of time … okay, I’m not actually going that far back. But for the longest time, psychology and biology were thought to be completely separate, each operating totally independently of the other.
But scientists and researchers are coming around to the fact that they’re so closely intertwined we can’t ignore the reciprocal impact they have on each other. The fact that they’re so interlaced (and the reason I’m so excited about it) means we can use physical activity to LITERALLY change our brains. And I’m using the word literally here in the true sense of the word, not the millennial sense of the world (which is to say, figuratively).
Physical activity, or lack of, directly impacts both brain chemistry and brain structure. Our brain chemistry and our brain structure determines EVERYTHING! How we think, how we feel, how we learn, how we interact in the world, etc.
So this means our brains aren’t the airplane black boxes we’ve traditionally thought they were. By knowing how physical activity can change our brains, we have some control over our brains instead of it always being in control of us.
Even through adulthood, our brains are what they call plastic, think pliable Play-Doh versus fragile glass. Thanks to activity we have the ability to keep learning, improving, and evolving as a person for the duration of our life! This goes for knowledge, wisdom, philosophy, spirituality, skills and more. Still want to learn that foreign language? You can! Still want to learn to knit? You can! And it’s completely in your control.
A perfect example of having some control over our brains is that researchers have found physical activity primes the brain for learning – the chemical changes that occur during physical activity have the brian ready, willing and able to learn. And I don’t just mean learning in the traditional school sense, I mean the brain’s overall ability to log and process new information.
This is why so many people have found such success with a morning run. Moving your body in the morning primes your brain for the next few hours to be a sponge! Your senses heighten, focus is increased, mood is improved, you’re more motivated and invigorated for the upcoming activities (work/school/conference/etc). So even if your work isn’t specifically learning a topic, you’re primed to perform at your best after activity.
This Is Only The Beginning
Our brains and our bodies working in tandem for the growth of our species is just the beginning of exploring how much our brains need physical activity. It isn’t just learning and technology that has seen brain benefits from activity – society at large has seen the brain benefits of activity in dealing with mental health issues and age-induced brain diseases (Alzheimers, Dementia).
Areas like pharmaceuticals, religion, politics, national budget and more are all affected when discussing the impact of physical activity on the brain. So to know that we have some control over it means we can do our part, not only for ourselves and our own health, but our family, loved ones, and community as well.