For Your Mind’s Sake—Get a Move On!

Physical inactivity not only harms brain health, but it also changes brain structure in negative ways. Here's how to motivate yourself to exercise.

Everyone knows that without exercise your body gets out of shape. Now new research suggests the same may be true for your brain cells.

A study assessing the brain impact of a sedentary lifestyle in animals found that inactivity chang-es the shape of certain brain cells in ways that increase susceptibility to high blood pressure, a major risk factor for stroke and cardiovascular disease. Researchers compared the brains of lab rats that were exposed to regular workouts on an exercise wheel to a second group of rats without access to exercise wheels.

They found that over a three-month period, the inactive animals experienced significant changes in a region of the brain called the rostral ventrolateral medulla (RVLM), which, among other activities, modulates blood pressure levels by controlling the contraction and relaxation of blood vessels. Neurons in the RVLM of the sedentary rats’ brains had sprouted abnormally large numbers of dendrites, or branches, compared to the neurons in the running rats—a structural change that made them more vulnerable to overstimulation and conse-quently to erratic changes in blood pressure levels.

This remodeling of neurons in inactive animals probably makes them more susceptible to cardio-vascular disease that can impair brain health and functioning, the researchers suggested in a paper published Feb. 15, 2014 in The Journal of Comparative Neurology.

“By identifying negative brain changes associated with physical inactivity, this study adds still more evidence to the body of research that suggests that, bottom line, we have to keep moving if we want to ensure maximum brain health,” says Louisa G. Sylvia, PhD, Associate Director of Psychological Services at the Bipolar Clinic and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hos-pital (MGH).

“Numerous earlier studies have linked regular exercise with a long list of brain bene-fits—such as encouraging the development of new brain cells and blood vessels, improving brain function, promoting healthier neuronal networks, boosting immune function and mood, and re-pairing the damaging effects of stress. It’s becoming obvious that exercise is one concrete strategy that we know helps the brain, and one of the best ways we know of to improve cogni-tion.”

Count the benefits

Research suggests that the impact on the brain of regularly engaging in, say, a brisk 30-minute walk, a bike ride or an energetic workout with weights is overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to the benefits listed above, these effects may include the following positive changes: increased production of key growth factors—such as brain-derived neu-rotrophic factor, nerve growth factor, and insulin-like growth factor—which keep the brain re-silient by allowing it to grow and change in response to new demands; increased circulation that delivers more glucose to brain cells, providing energy to facilitate mental function; increased delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, which is linked to better overall cognitive functioning and improvements in memory and executive functions such as decision-making; improved control of blood sugar levels; increased resistance to, and faster recovery from, brain injury;slowed brain aging, including less age-related brain atrophy; slowed progression of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alz-heimer’s; improved mood and self-esteem; and improved overall health, which reduces the risk for disorders that may compromise brain health, such as obesi-ty, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.


These tips can help you get in shape safely:

  • Check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.
  • Wear supportive shoes and comfortable, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Engage in five minutes of slower-paced exercise to warm up before working out, and cool down afterwards.
  • Begin at an easy pace and gradually work up to higher intensity and longer duration day by day. Increase very slightly the intensity of workouts every day.
  • Aim for a level of effort that leaves you moderately winded, but still able to talk .

Boosting motivation

Despite the impressive research suggesting that inactivity is unhealthy and that exercise increases fitness, reduces risk for health problems, and boosts brain health, you may require further encouragement before you decide to break a sweat, Dr. Sylvia says.

“One reason that establishing a habit of regular exercise is so challenging is the difficulty of summoning the will to work out,” she explains. “You may be unable to make the transition from thinking that you’re too busy to change your ways, that you can’t change, that there’s no point in changing, or that it’s too late to change, to acknowledge that you can find ways to exercise if you put your mind to it. Usually, making this transi-tion involves finding a factor that motivates you.”

Besides acknowledging the health benefits of regular exercise, Dr. Sylvia suggests finding other, more personal reasons to get moving, such as staying fit for the sake of loved ones, improving a health condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes, enjoying the mood boost associated with exercise, building up flagging energy and stamina, or improving personal appearance.

“The next step is evaluating your readiness to begin a program of exercises,” Dr. Sylvia says. “What is holding you back? Do you have fears associated with exercising—for example, that you are too overweight, that exercise is hard, or that working out with other people at the gym might be embarrassing? Make an effort to address this negative thinking by replacing negative attitudes with more positive thoughts, for example by imagining achieving your fitness goals, or adding years to your life. Try not to start your exercise program before you’re psychologically ready, as this may set you up for failure.”

Other suggestions:

  • Set realistic goals. Start slowly with short 15-minute sessions and work up to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. Begin with moderate workouts, and gradually build up to more vigorous sessions.
  • Try for variety. Both aerobic exercise and strength training can provide cognitive benefits. Mind-body exercises such as yoga or tai chi, provide physical benefits, while at the same time improving the ability to focus and relax.
  • Have patience. Steady adherence to a workout schedule will produce noticeable results over time.
  • Reward yourself. For example, treat yourself to a movie or a day at the spa after completing a week of regular exercising.
  • Build in support. Consider exercising with friends, or joining a fitness program that stresses regular attendance. Share your new resolve to exercise with family and friends.
  • Make it fun. Look for forms of exercise that provide challenge and entertainment. For example, arrange a game of tennis. Instead of driving, walk to a favorite destination.

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