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Archive for March, 2011

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a confirmed couch potato. Not that I am proud of that fact–I just seem to have a stubbornly sluggish physiology. I like the idea of exercise; it’s the ooze of sweat and the burn of lactic acid that turn me off. Add to that the fact that I am not good at sport—or movement, for that matter—and the reason for my inactivity should be apparent. With my obvious lack of basic coordination, I make orcs look graceful.

At my high school graduation, one of my happiest realisations was that I would NEVER again have to endure PE and its associated shames. What a joyous day that was! I was too tuckered out to burn my joggers, though, and leaping for joy was way too strenuous.

Now, many years (many, many years) later,  in my couch potato-ly wisdom, I focus on doing the things I’m good at. Like reading.

In my extensive reading I have discovered—to my consternation—that exercise actually has some desirable side-effects. Apparently, one of the benefits of exercise is a mood lift. I am highly sceptical about that one, because it is way beyond my powers of imagination to see how sweat and pain can improve your mood. However, diehard runners and cyclists I know assure me it is true! Go figure.

Scientists point to brain chemicals to explain this phenomenon. Exercise causes the pituitary gland to trigger the release of powerful chemicals called endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer. Their release results in a rush of pleasure, commonly known as a “runner’s high.” I also discovered in my reading that this endorphin release happens only AFTER thirty (that’s 3-0) minutes of strenuous exercise, which probably explains why I’ve never experienced it.

Regular exercise, according to one source, is so good for mood enhancement that some researchers are claiming it is as useful as anti-depressant medication in the treatment of depression in laboratory conditions. Many doctors prescribe both—medication and exercise together. Neuro-researchers are studying the little understood side effect of exercise called neurogenesis and its positive effects on the depressed brain. Amazingly, aerobic exercise actually triggers the growth of new nerve cells called neurons and enhances their connectivity. (So, begging your pardon for my gross oversimplification: Exercise makes important parts of your brain grow denser and function better!)

Here’s the real kicker: the effects of exercise are shown to improve learning and memory in laboratory conditions. We’re talking rats—in little Lycra gym suits and itty-bitty sweat bands. Compared to the couch-potato rats, the gym-junky rats learn better, perform better, and have denser brain tissue. And they’re not cranky or morose either—at least not until they lose their enhanced brains and active lifestyle to the scalpel! Scientists are not suggesting that working out will create geniuses (so put down that barbell, Einstein!) Unfortunately, the accelerated learning plateaus in the exercising lab rats.

The benefits of exercise are not limited to adults. Children’s learning can be enhanced as fine and gross motor skills are developed through play and physical activity. Kids who are fit generally experience better health and higher self-esteem than their unfit peers. Social skills and team work are picked up on the playing field and the playground. At a time in history when teenagers are more sedentary than ever before, the moodiness of today’s teens is legendary. It doesn’t take a scientist to see a crucial link between their lack of activity and adolescent irritability.

Even a confirmed couch potato like me has to concede that the benefits of exercise, sharper memory and better mood , are well worth the sweat. You might not be able to exercise your way to brilliance, but you can definitely exercise yourself happy!

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