We all know that exercise is good for us. And most of us are aware that it also makes us feel better. You’ve probably heard things like ‘exercise releases endorphins’, which we understand to be some kind of natural ‘feel good’ chemical.
It seems, however, that the real reason exercise makes us feel so good has to do with its affect on our brains. Put simply, when the body moves and blood flows, the brain begins to work better. This view is increasingly supported by medical science and has been my experience in 100 percent of cases with my clients.
Conversely, a body that is not ‘allowed’ to move as it was naturally built to do may begin to fall into disrepair. Muscles begin to waste away, blood flow may become sluggish, joints seem stiff and painful and a sort of murkiness can descend over the brain, leaving you much less mentally focused and fighting an ongoing feeling of lethargy. Could it be that our modern propensity to move less is at the root of much of both our physical and psychological lack of well-being? I don’t think it’s stretching it to say that ‘a fit society is a properly functioning society’.
Made to move
The truth is that our bodies were made to move. We are essentially not too far removed from our hunter-gatherer ancestors in some respects. They used their bodies and their brains to outsmart often more fierce competition in the hunt for food. To do this, they had to move – a lot! Their bodies and brains worked in unison to achieve this end.
Though we may have smarter software (brain capacity and function) than our ancestors, the hardware (bodies) we are using is still the same. Except we don’t hunt and gather food any more. Our bodies move less now than they ever have. Hence, we are almost totally overwhelmed by chronic conditions such as obesity, depression and toxic levels of stress - not to mention cardiovascular disease and myriad other conditions. Getting the point? Could it be that a great part of our problem lies in the fact that we have betrayed our bodies’ natural urge to move?
Exercise releases a cascade of neuro-chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine) that affect our thoughts and emotions. Indeed, there is a growing shift in medicine to recommend prescribe exercise as a path to health. Study after study is accelerating the strong case for this shift. It seems that when we move, we stimulate the brain stem which, in turn, gives us more energy, lifts our mood, increases our motivation and self-esteem and even helps us return to normal sleep patterns. Critically, exercise allows us to prove to ourselves that we can affect change in our own lives.
In my own practice, the first changes I see in clients are invariably those connected with mood. Clients report feeling better, becoming more focused, less irritable and sleeping better. Though they may come to exercise to lose weight and improve their aerobic fitness, to my mind these are just the added benefits. The real benefit of exercise is the effect it has on our body and brain chemistry, giving us back the power to take control of our moods – and our lives.
Paul O’Brien is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise since 2007 and a qualified Life, Health & Nutrition Coach. He is co-owner of Republic of Fitness in Westport. He can be contacted on 086 1674515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.