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Study: Exercise Can Save Your Brain

A recent Harvard study is telling people who want to overcome their emotional problems to get physical first.

The study, conducted by Harvard psychology PhD candidate Emily E. Bernstein and Richard J. McNally, links aerobic exercise with mood regulation, showing physical activity can help people bounce back more easily from emotional lows and highs.

As part of the study, Bernstein conducted an experiment that involved playing a clip from the final scene of the 1979 film The Champ, which is known to make people cry:

About 80 study subjects were told to jog for 30 minutes before watching the film, while other participants waited around without exercising before the film. Immediately after watching the film, the study participants all filled out a survey which asked them how they are feeling. After being told to keep busy for 15 minutes again, they filled out another survey asking them how they are feeling.

“Theoretically, a bout of physical activity could facilitate flexible coping by boosting a person’s regulatory ability, perhaps through increased self-efficacy or executive control,” Bernstein hypothesized, predicting an increased negative emotional reaction among those who hadn’t exercised before watching the film and an easier emotional recovery for those who had.

Sure enough, those who had exercised before watching the film seemed to bounce back to their stable emotional states more easily, even if they had initially felt worse about watching the film than those who hadn’t.

“Similarly, participants who struggled to engage in goal-directed behaviours after the stressor, such as reporting difficulties concentrating or thinking about other things, also felt worse across time than those who did not have this issue,” the study reports. “However, those participants who had recently completed 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise were less affected by these initial perceived difficulties with emotion regulation as they reported less sadness at the end of the study than those who did not exercise.”

Other studies went so far as to explore the impact exercise can have on the brain. A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found aerobic exercise positively impacts verbal memory and thinking skills by increasing the size of the brain’s hippocampus. Other positive effects of exercise are reduced risks of heart disease, stroke, and depression.

Dr. Scott McGinnis, a Harvard neurologist, says people who exercise tend to have larger volumes of the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, parts of the brain that control memory and thinking.

“Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” McGinnis told the Harvard Health Letter.

So before abandoning all responsibility this holiday break in pursuit of a fun, effortless time spent with family; consider adding an extra daily run to your vacation itinerary. You might be pleasantly surprised at how much more relaxed family time can be.

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