When we talk about our mind-body connection, you probably picture someone in a meditative state.
However, when we are active, with blood pumping around our bodies, we can clearly see how the body and mind work together.
We asked brain health expert Mona Moisala to provide insight into how exercise (and stress) affects and enhances our mind-body connection.
What research-based evidence is there on how exercise helps to relieve stress and build mental resilience?
There are many mechanisms by which exercise improves brain function.
Firstly, aerobic exercise imparticular increases blood circulation/flow, which brings more oxygen to the brain. Moving our body even a little can instantly make us a little bit smarter. Some studies have even shown that our thinking ability can improve if from simply taking a walk.
Secondly, the long-term positive effects of exercise when we are younger are shown by the intellectual benefits that extend to the later years in life. Studies have shown these benefits through cognitive tests much later in life.
Thirdly, there is some evidence that exercise can affect gene functioning. This is the turning on and off of genes in the brain, affecting how the brain can function. There’s also evidence that it can stimulate the production of growth of nerve function in the brain.
WHAT TYPE OF EXERCISE IS GOOD FOR THE MIND? ESPECIALLY IF YOU’RE UNDER STRESS.
Most of the above health benefits have to do with aerobic exercise, especially that which isn’t too demanding. A little raised heart rate and sweat can be good, for example, by simply going for a brisk walk.
Also, it’s vital that the form of exercise is pleasurable and doesn’t feel forced. These benefits and a sense of pleasure create the perfect cocktail for the brain. If you hate jogging, don’t do that to improve your brain health.
How does optimal recovery (the right balance between physical activity and rest) affect the mind’s brain health and wellbeing?
Rest and recovery are essential so that your body can recover from the stress of exercise. The same applies to the brain.
Recovery time is crucial for the brain because we need to balance stress and recovery. For example, mental stress (from a demanding job) means we must have recovery throughout the day. Take a few minutes out to enhance your brain stress recovery.
HOW DO MENTAL STRESS AND OVERLOAD AFFECT THE BODY’S ABILITY TO FUNCTION AND RECOVER?
The brain and the body are constantly communicating with each other. Your mental state and mental energy levels affect your mood, so we should aim not to have too much physical or mental stress.
If your mind is overloaded (near burnout), should you try to lower your stress levels with exercise?
It depends on the type of exercise. If something like jogging, dancing, or yoga gives your pleasure, fun, and enjoyment and feels like it helps you relax and calm down, then yes.
If you’re in a state of burnout and don’t feel like exercising, don’t force it. Heavy exercise is a temporary state of stress for the body, increasing cortisol levels, so it won’t help you lower your stress.
However, exercise improves your stress control in the long term and will improve the heart and blood functioning system. So, in the long term, you will benefit.
WHY DOESN’T INTENSE EXERCISE NECESSARILY EASE YOUR STRESS LEVELS?
Listen to your own body and your overall stress level. If a jog is making your heart pound more, maybe it’s not a good idea. Trying a low-impact exercise like yoga might be better. Ask yourself, do you feel more relaxed, more recovered? Or are you adding more stress?
How does physical exhaustion affect the mind/ brain?
If this physical exhaustion is coupled with stress, it will likely lower your mood, and you will feel mentally exhausted as well. Physical exhaustion can feel pleasurable as well if no mental stress is involved. This can happen, for example, after an enjoyable but strenuous workout.
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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.