Just 30 minutes exercise can create new neurons in regions of the brain responsible for learning, emotion and memory and even moderate aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe which leads to clearer thinking.
It is well known that runners often report bursts of mental clarity, enhanced moods and moments of becoming lost in their own thoughts long enough to confront external tasks.
It’s thought that although aerobic exercise can’t prevent people getting sad or depressed, but it can help with recovery.
In fact any kind of exercise can aid cognitive thinking because exercise serves to enhance important adaptive functions – self-reflection, creativity, and attention.
New research has disproved the theory that once humans start to grow older, their brains cannot make new neurons. A handful of recent studies, including one carried out by the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology, have discovered that after a run, new neurons are formed in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning and memory. It is now thought that if you exercise so much you sweat, new brain cells will be formed.
Other studies have noted an increase of blood flow to the brain’s frontal lobe, the area involved in clear thinking, planning, focus and concentration. This region is also associated with the regulation of emotions, which supports the idea that exercise may help reduce sadness.
To prove their point, the researchers showed the final scene of the 1979 film ‘The Champ’ (a tear-jerker of note) to a group of 80 volunteer participants. Before watching the scene, some of the participants were asked to jog for 30 minutes, while others performed stretching exercises for the same amount of time. Each participant was then asked to report how sad the film made them feel, following which the researcher kept them occupied for another 15 minutes, before asking them again how they were feeling.
Participants who reported difficulties with concentration or who felt overwhelmed by their emotions, were less affected by their symptoms following the 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. They also reported feeling less sad at the end of the study than those who did no exercise.
In addition to enhancing each individuals’s clarity and memory, researchers discovered another benefit of going for a long run – the propensity to daydream or become lost in their own thoughts, something they consider to be important to well-being.
Psychologist Jerome Singer of Yale University and his colleagues suggest that positive and constructive daydreaming serves four broad adaptive functions:
- It assists with future planning, which is enhanced by a period of self-reflection;
- It enhances creativity for problem solving and attentional cycling that allows the individual to rotate through different information streams to develop and/or advance personally;
- It provides meaningful goals;
- It enhances learning through short breaks from external tasks.
The full study and its results have been published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
In the meantime… keeping active, along with a balanced diet, is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of dementia, but new research conducted by experts at the University of British Columbia in Canada, suggests regular aerobic exercise can actually reverse the progress of dementia even after it has taken hold. Their findings, published in the journal Neurology, add to growing evidence that physical activity can be used to treat cognitive problems.
A clinical trial carried out with elderly people with an average age of 74 found that those who exercised for one hour three times every week, saw an improvement in cardiovascular health as well as overall thinking skills. They were also able to walk further and their blood pressure levels improved. However, the benefits only lasted as long as they were able to continue exercising.
The important thing is that an aerobic exercise programme may be beneficial for people who already have early memory problems.
Scientists now believe gardening could be beneficial for physical and mental health – pruning the roses and creating something of beauty everyone can enjoy can enhance mental wellbeing, and if you work in a grey office building, spend hours stuck in traffic or constantly stare at computer screen, gardening might be the perfect antidote.
Sheffield University’s environment expert, Dr Ross Cameron, thinks our busy and sterile modern lifestyle is sapping our spirits. He’s coined the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’ and he has a point! Dr Cameron believes people notice and appreciate the natural world far less than they used to, and his solution is simple – we need to access the green spaces and get outdoors in the same way previous generations did.
Society is changing and the younger generation especially now spend more time glued to their mobile phones in the virtual world instead of enjoying the fresh air of the natural one. There’s the difference – in the past they would go and play in the garden, in the park or in the woodland, and sadly, that’s now very rare. We really have lost something important in life – humans evolved alongside nature, not in concrete cities and they respond well to nature.
Previous research suggests that just half an hour in the garden has long-term benefits for body and mind. Another study found that the sounds of nature – the wind whistling through the trees or the gurgling of a stream – reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lowers blood pressure.
There is a growing body of evidence that suggests regular gardening can reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity. It also improves balance in older people, helping to prevent falls, a major cost to health services. Gardening can also help dementia patients, with one trial showing that six months of gardening at home resulted in a slow-down of cognitive decline over the next 18 months.
But for those who have difficulty getting access to the countryside, the garden is the perfect substitute. Green spaces don’t need to be in the wilderness to provide benefits – intimate spaces to engage with are just outside the back door…
The physical activity involved in gardening helps relaxation, which is good for mental health, and green spaces are stress-busting environments. Even a little bit of greenery around makes us more relaxed – even a collection of indoor plants is good for wellbeing, one reason they’re so popular in lobbies, offices and rest homes.
It is true, apparently, that jogging for half an hour can burn up about 240 calories – but doctors are [rightly] increasingly encouraging people to take up lighter activities they can more easily include in their daily routine. The Royal Horticultural Society claims that half an hour of digging burns 150 calories, raking a lawn burns 120 and pushing a lawn mower for 30 minutes burns 165.
Even tending a miniature ‘garden’ made up of pots and boxes in the corner of a backyard or in a conservatory can improve mood and wellbeing. Looking after plants gives people something to live for and keen gardeners make friends too!
In a recent article in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Arizona have claimed that going for an early morning run could help to keep you alert for the rest of the day. It appears that part of the brain responsible for decision-making and planning is activated during a short period of healthy exercise.
It has long been known that playing a musical instrument can stimulate the frontal cortex, but this is the first time scientists have linked it to running. In addition, the new research also found it helped to improve memory, attention spans and keeps the senses sharp.
The researchers studied 11 competitive, male runners aged between 18 and 25 and another 11 young men who said that they had not exercised in the past year. (They focused on men because it is difficult to study women due to the effects of the menstrual cycle on their minds and bodies.)
The men filled out questionnaires about their physical activity levels and from these, the researchers were able to estimate their aerobic fitness, following which, each volunteer took an MRI scan to measure the levels of activity in their brains.
It turned out that the runner’s brains showed increased connectivity in areas linked to higher-level thinking. There were not the same levels of activity in the brains of the inactive men. There was also less brain activity in the part of the runner’s brains that indicate lack of focus and ‘mind wandering.’
Increased connectivity between brain regions is known to improve memory and the ability to multitask. Running involves complex navigational skills as well as an ability to plan, monitor and respond to the environment. This would also include juggling memories of past runs, and the ability to continue with all of the motor activities involved in running, which are complex.
However, the study cannot prove that running actually causes the differences in the men’s thinking, only that runners had certain types of thought pattern. It is also unclear whether running on its own has these effects, or if the effects are duplicated in other endurance sports, like cycling and swimming.
Humans have a strong emotional connection to the natural world. But mental wellbeing and our emotional bond with nature varies depending on the type and quality of an environment. Numerous studies have found that stress levels reduce when people spend time in the natural environment. Spending time in the countryside or at the beach is better for your brain than spending it in city parks.
Researchers at the University of Surrey, University of Exeter, University of Plymouth, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, and natural England, surveyed 4,500 people who spent time enjoying natural open spaces and discovered that those visiting rural and coastal locations were more psychologically content than those taking a trip to an urban green space.
Visits to protected areas, such as national parks, rural or coastal locations, result in improved mental wellbeing and greater feelings of relaxation and refreshment. Those who spent 30 minutes or more in natural environments experienced a better connection and received greater psychological benefits.
A separate study of 199 women and 200 men aged between 19 and 76 by social psychologists at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge found that people who spend more time outside also have a more positive body image and also higher self-esteem.
It is possible that experiencing natural environments helps boost the feeling of being an important part of a wider ecosystem, meaning people feel more respect for their bodies. It also helps people feel further removed from the pressures of the modern world and lessens the need to conform to stereotypes, such as being thin or muscular.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2016. All rights reserved.