Inactivity and the Brain: Why Exercise is More Important than Ever

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runningI know exercise is good for me. I know it’s important for my health and happiness and that it’s necessary for general fitness. That part’s easy — we hear about how we should exercise more all the time.

What I didn’t realize was how being inactive is really detrimental to the brain and body. I didn’t understand all of the specific ways regular activity can be beneficial, either.

With a little digging around, I found some research that made me realize there’s much more to exercising than just getting fit.

Inactivity changes our brain structure – literally

Firstly, the bad news. If you’re living a sedentary lifestyle, which more of us are prone to doing as technology takes away physical barriers for our work, you could be increasing your risk of heart disease. You may have even heard this before, since it’s fairly common knowledge that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease — what’s new in recent research are clues to exactly how this links might work.

Researchers at Wayne State University School of Medicine recently found that rats who were mostly sedentary for almost three months actually had physical changes in their brains, as a result. Some of the rats’ neurons had extra branches — the parts that help them connect into the sympathetic nervous system, where a lot of our involuntary physical functions are regulated, like breathing. Having too many branches, as the brains of these rats did, could lead to overstimulation of the nervous system.

The researchers involved in this study looked at the rostral ventrolateral medulla (RVLM) section of the brain. As you can see in the diagram below, this is the part of our brain that runs the sympathetic nervous system and helps us to maintain a regular heart rate and avoid serious issues like hypertension.

brain

One of the things regulated by the sympathetic nervous system is the constriction of blood vessels to maintain regular blood flow and keep our blood pressure from spiking. This is where the researchers see a potential insight from their study: if inactivity affects this funtion of the sympathetic nervous system, that could explain how it leads to high blood pressure and higher risk of heart disease.

Of course, rats aren’t the same as humans, but the study does point out a possible direction for further research into the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.

How exercise is beneficial – more so than ever

Supposing you’re as concerned as I am about sitting around all day now, let’s have a look at some of the actual benefits of being active, besides simply avoiding the troubles of inactivity.

1. Exercise improves mental health

Exercise has been shown to improve mental health, especially in those suffering from depression or anxiety disorders. So far, the most impressive results have occurred in people who are mostly sedentary and take up a regular exercise routine. Some studies have also found that a difference is more clear in women and in people over the age of forty.

The results have included better mood, better overall well-being and fewer (or lower) symptoms of depression or anxiety.

2. Exercise decreases disease risk

Across several studies, evidence has piled together to prove that regular physical activity is effective in preventing several different chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, hypertension, obesity and osteoporosis.

This graph illustrates how just moderate exercise is enough to decrease your risk of disease and premature death:

minimumex

There has also been some research indicating that exercise can reduce the risk of strokes.

3. Regular exercise can improve sleep

A study of people with insomnia showed that after four months of regular exercise, the participants were sleeping and average of 45 minutes longer per night. The results didn’t show that participants necessarily slept better the night after they exercised, but long-term, the study proved how effective regular activity can be in treating insomnia.

There have been quite a few studies into the benefits of exercise on sleep, many of them focusing on those with sleep complaints or disorders, who find regular exercise can improve overall sleep quality.

It’s also been found to help those without sleep troubles, though. Regular exercisers are more likely to self-report better sleep over the same amount of time as those who have mostly sedentary lifestyles:

0228sleepeffects1

The National Sleep Foundation also found the less time spent sitting down was linked to better sleep quality:

0228sleepeffects3

High-intensity exercise has also been found to improve sleep efficiency, so if you’re after a better night’s sleep you might want to try a tough gym session rather than a gentle stroll.

4. Exercise can reduce stress and improve mood

Vigorous activity isn’t just helpful for better sleep: it’s also been found to correlate with lower anxiety levels. That particular review says that exercise isn’t necessarily the cause of the lowered stress levels in participants, but it’s certainly correlated, and based on the other benefits I’ve listed, I doubt regular activity would be a bad thing to try.

Another review showed that physical activity can not only reduce stress but improve overall mood, confidence and self-esteem.

Adding exercise to your daily routine

Convinced? Not sure where to start, though? Don’t worry, I’m in the same boat.

To help us both get going with a little extra activity in our days, here are some easy ways to add regular bouts of exercise to your routine:

Track your daily activity: Tracking how much you move every day can be sobering when you first start, but it’s a good way to understand how much you might overestimate your daily activity levels. Try an app like Human or Moves to help you understand how much time you spend up and about each day.

Set a reminder: Set up a reminder on your computer or phone to go off every hour or two if you need help getting away from the desk. Use the trigger to remind you to get up and walk around—down the street for a drink, around the block, or just around the room for a couple of minutes.

Build activity into your routine: Building a little bit of extra activity into your routine might be the most effective way to increase your exercise levels. Try getting off train one stop early, going out to your letterbox every day, or choosing a café for your morning coffee that requires a 10-minute walk.

Once you make something like this a habit, you’ll probably find it’s easier than you thought to get moving every day.

Start with just 7 minutes: Get into a routine of regular workouts with just 7 minutes per day. The science-based 7-minute workout is hard, but short:

Those seven minutes should be, in a word, unpleasant. The upside is, after seven minutes, you’re done.

It’s a proven way to exercise your body at home, with just a chair and a wall to work with. In fact, I’m going to go do this one right now. Wish me luck!

7min workout

Do you have some other suggestions? What works for you to increase your exercise levels? Let us know in the comments.

If you liked this post, you might like The Science of Posture: Sitting up straight will make you happier, more confident and less risk-averse and How Stress Can Change the Size of Our Brains and What We Can Do to Lower it, Nature.com

Image credits: Huffington Post, Science-based Running, New York Times, Jason Ilagan

  • Stacey Trock

    What a great post! I always try to force myself to do a little activity, ESPECIALLY when I don’t feel like it!
    I’m reading Smarter: the new science of building brain power… sounds like a book you might like :)

    • Belle

      Ooh that does sound good. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Vitor Bellote

    “the ugly truth”!

  • Guest

    I definitely underestimate the value of exercise. I walk to work and regularly stretch at night, etc… some more strenuous work would do my body (and mind!) a lot of good.

    But… I’ll just ignore this for another couple years ;) haha

  • http://glassduffle.com/ Eric White

    I definitely underestimate the value of exercise. I walk to work and regularly stretch at night while I’m watching TV, maybe throw in some pushups or crunches etc… some more strenuous work would do my body (and mind!) a lot of good though I think.

    But… I’ll probably just ignore this for another couple years ;) haha

    • Belle

      It’s so easy to do that, I know! Stretching is a great start. Maybe you could add a 7-minute workout in-between shows? :)

  • Jane

    I learned long ago that exercises improves your outlook on life – creates an optimism. True, but that has rarely been an issue with me. I started exercising because I fear losing cognitive abilities as I age….and I seem to be doing that by the day. LOL Since a gym membership isn’t an option, I’ve learned to work exercise into every aspect of simple things through the day. Like when folding laundry, reaching and stretching for things on shelves one at a time, and not saving items at the top or bottom of the stairs to reduce the number of steps. I purposely make multiple trips and to save time and raise my heart rate, I take them as fast as I can.

    I have DVDs and keep my shoes, socks and workout clothes in my bathroom at night. Get up – get ready – work out before engaging my brain in any other activity. It works for me. It’s beneficial as you pointed out so persuasively and it’s free.

    • Belle

      Thanks for sharing your habits, Jane. I love the idea of having your workout clothes in the bathroom so you can put them on first thing in the morning!

  • chrissa

    I love your articles!!
    cheers from greece!;)

  • http://stopworryingaboutmoney.com/ Adam Kamerer

    I signed up for a gym membership at the local university a few weeks ago, and have been going about 3-4 times a week for the last several weeks. It really does make a difference! I’m sleeping better, my confidence is up, I feel more clear-headed (and dare I say smarter?). It hasn’t actually resulted in much weight loss yet, but I’ve gained some muscle, and I just feel healthier overall.

    • Belle

      That’s great to hear, Adam! Congrats on keeping up the habit so far.

    • Fleur

      Gaining more muscle weight will certainly help burn ‘fat’. Muscle has a higher metabolism than fat tissue has and so by having more muscle mass will help your overall weight :) It’s quite interesting, I studied it in clinical nutrition as part of my Sport and Exercise Science degree.
      When people ‘starve themselves’ with the intention to ‘loose fat’ they loose more muscle weight than anything else which actually goes against helping to loose fat…as in essence muscle helps to loose fat :)

  • http://wendytellsall.com/ wendy tells all

    Not to mention, exercising as a break from your work can allow your brain to get the disengagement, distraction, and dopamine that your creativity needs! As Leo wrote about here a year ago. http://bit.ly/Ix2SzY

  • http://wendytellsall.com/ wendy tells all

    Not to mention, stepping away from your work and exercising, can give you the disengagement, distraction, and dopamine your creativity needs. (As Leo wrote here last year). http://bit.ly/Ix2SzY

  • http://www.postplanner.com/ Scott Ayres

    Yeah too many of us bloggers sit on our asses all day and make our asses bigger!

  • http://hillaryfox.com/ Hillary Fox

    Great advice! I find it so much easier to focus after an hour of strength training in the morning, especially in the winter. But I still spend 10+ hours each day in front of a screen.. ouch. I wonder if one of those stand-up desks would keep my brain from branching out in all the wrong places? :)

  • Rahat Bashar

    One of the most useful articles I’ve read in quite a while… nice

  • Erica Jaclyn

    Great post! I find that my most interesting, “out-there” ideas come to me on long xc runs. I definitely think more creatively later in the evening after lots of activity than during the earlier parts of the day while I’m sitting in the office :)

  • Peter

    I have workrave on my PC. After about 45 mins on the PC (which sometimes equates to an hour or so sitting there) it tells me to exercise and go for a walk. I’ve used it for years now. Even though I may ignore it for while I eventually realise I need to get up and walk. I then walk around the block for 10 – 15 mins.

    Thanks for the article.
    Peter

  • Brian

    What I can’t understand is that so many people have to wait until somebody comes up with an idea as if it is new, also why have you then got to “pay to join a gym”?
    There is a gym outside your front door and enough information on line or in the library on how to excercise properly.
    Take it slow and do it carefully, eat properly and you can succeed at a reasonable cost.

  • http://www.fit-bits.blogspot.co.uk/ Tess Langley

    Great post and I totally agree with you. Exercise is so important for so many reasons, not least health and concentration, but also personal challenges and development. Plus, it’s good for the soul!

  • http://www.defensesoap.com/ AnnaMorrison@defensesoap.com

    It’s a great workout blog, really useful to me. Sometimes there may be a situation of skin infection in the body. Use the best anti fungal foot and body soap for keep skin healthy and fresh and free from various fungal problems.

  • Nick Brown

    I grew up as an athlete and so exercise was a constant in my life. In high school I began weight lifting for sport and aesthetic reasons. This continued in college where, with a lack of organized sports, I went to the gym regularly for longer more intense sessions. Now, as a young professional I still exercise. Since time is more scarce I stick to a 15-minute workout every other day without weights. There are a lot of exercises you can do where “Your Body Is Your Barbell” (an excellent gym-less guide from Men’s Health). With the information in this article I may schedule some longer, more intense exercises to test if that increases my mental and physical health more.