A fascinating book on the science behind mental health and exercise—Dr. Jennifer Heisz’s MOVE THE BODY, HEAL THE MIND: Overcome Anxiety, Depression, and Dementia and Improve Focus, Creativity, and Sleep—uses the latest neuroscience research to show how exercise can alleviate depression and stress, prevent dementia, and enhance focus and creativity.
Dr. Heisz is a leading expert on the neuroscience of exercise and is the Director of the NeuroFit Lab at McMaster University, which boasts one of the top kinesiology departments in the world. Structured around Dr. Heisz’s personal journey from sedentary scholar to triathlete.
1. Exercise can alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. These conditions may be caused by neural inflammation, which exercise reduces by releasing specialized proteins called myokines. Dr. Heisz explains why this makes exercise a promising option for the one in three people who don’t respond to antidepressants. When it comes to exercise intensity, Dr. Heisz’s research suggests that moderate intensity exercise may be best at preventing depression.
2. Exercising can prevent dementia. According to Dr. Heisz’s research, your physical activity level contributes to dementia risk as much as your genetics. In other words, being physically inactive can completely negate a healthy set of genes when it comes to developing dementia. It’s important to exercise at a level that challenges you to produce lactate, a by-product produced by hardworking muscles. Many fitness instructors talk about “flushing lactate from the muscles” as if lactate is a bad thing. But the latest research in animal models suggests that lactate may be one of the most important promoters of brain health. During anaerobic exercise, lactate travels directly from the muscles to the brain and promotes the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a key brain region involved in learning and memory that is devastated by Alzheimer’s disease. This may be why Dr. Heisz’s research shows that higher-intensity interval training is most effective at boosting memory across the lifespan.
3. Exercise improves sleep. Not only does exercising improve sleep, but exercising at certain times of the day can also help you shift sleep schedules, helping night owls become morning birds and vice versa. Exercising deepens sleep by increasing a natural sleep aid called adenosine, which when the body expends energy. Dr. Heisz’s research shows that resistance training promotes sleep, especially when it is more intensive and more frequent.
4. The connection between exercise and addiction. Dr. Heisz explains that “runner’s high” likely reflects the combined effects of endorphins and endocannabinoids, which are like morphine and cannabis respectively but made by the body during exercise and deliver a rush of dopamine to the brain. Dopamine is a powerful neural incentive, and the reason drugs are so addictive. Addictive drugs produce an excessive amount of dopamine, which damages the reward system. During the initial stage of sobriety, dopamine plummets leading to drug cravings. Because exercise increases dopamine it can supplement addiction recovery and crush cravings.
5. Exercise routines to enhance focus and boost creativity. When we sit for long periods, the brain is starved of the vital nutrients it needs to thrive. Short bursts of activity deliver a rush of blood sugar and oxygen to the prefrontal cortex to enhance focus. Meanwhile, research reveals that athletes who play more than one sport are more creative, even if they play the other sport for fun. Try mixing exercise types (walking, yoga, biking) to train your body and your brain to be more creative.