When I was about to turn 40, I started working out regularly after years of inactivity. As I sweated my way through cardio, weights, and dance classes, I noticed that exercise wasn’t just changing my body. It was also profoundly transforming my brain—for the better.
The immediate effects of exercise on my mood and thought process proved to be a powerful motivational tool. And as a neuroscientist and workout devotee, I’ve come to believe that these neurological benefits could have profound implications for how we live, learn and age as a society.
Let’s start with one of the most practical immediate benefits of breaking a sweat: exercise combats stress. Exercise is a powerful way to combat feelings of stress because it causes immediate increases in levels of key neurotransmitters, including serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine and endorphins, that are often depleted by anxiety and depression. That’s why going for a run or spending 30 minutes on the elliptical can boost our moods immediately—combatting the negative feelings we often associate with chronic stressors we deal with every day.
Exercise improves our ability to shift and focus attention. In my lab, we have also demonstrated that exercise improves our ability to shift and focus attention. Even casual exercisers will recognize this effect. It’s that heightened sense of focus that you feel right after you’ve gotten your blood flowing, whether it be a brisk walk with the dog or a full-on Crossfit workout. These findings suggest that if you have a big presentation or meeting where you need your focus and attention to be at its peak, you should get in a workout ahead of time to maximize those brain functions.