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How physical exercise & meditation impact your brain

Researchers found that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced the intensity and unpleasantness of pain. Source

The brain itself actually does not have any pain receptors or can’t feel any pain, but it relays the information for feeling pain to your body…

How does this work?

In our brain, the prefrontal cortex is amongst others, responsible for pain processing. It receives the information for pain processing from the thalamus. And the thalamus relays this information by sending signals to the amygdala and hippocampus. Regular meditation activity like a guided body scan will uncouple that communication of pain processing.

Several recent studies have demonstrated the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in managing chronic pain, such as chronic low back pain and migraine.

Let's look at the details of one of these studies:

  • 89 adults who experienced between 4 and 20 migraine days per month. Mainly females with an average age of 44 with average 7.3 migraine days per month. They received 8hrs of training in mindfulness/yoga per week. Source.

  • After 12 weeks the participants all had -2 fewer migraine days and 36% decreased pain intensity.

  • Apart from less migraines and decreased pain intensity, the participants also noted an improvement in disability, quality of life, self-efficacy & depression scores. So you see that if you haven’t tried meditation for stress management, here’s another reason to give it a try for reducing your sensation of pain.

The same way that you train your muscles to stay fit, when you do mindfulness exercises, you train your brain to focus and stay in the present moment.

Neuroscientists have found that depression and anxiety are associated with changes in the brain. Scientists can measure the activity of neurons in the brain using a device called an electroencephalograph (EEG).

To investigate that possibility, healthy adults with high levels of stress were randomized to 2x eight-week programs. Eighteen completed the relaxation-response program, and 16 completed the mindfulness program. Both programs successfully decreased stress and increased mindfulness in participants. However, the mindfulness program resulted in further improvements in measures such as self-compassion and rumination. Source

Now let’s talk a little bit more about exercise… Last week, I talked about the benefits of weight training for maintaining healthy bones and avoid loss of muscle mass, but exercise also has great benefits for brain & mental health:

Physical exercise will have a positive impact on your:

  • Focus

  • Memory

  • Anxiety & depression

  • Blood flow to the brain

  • Mental flexibility

You probably heard before that exercise releases endorphins and therefore many people can get addicted to exercise or rather to the “high” that they experience after vigorous exercise. This varies from person to person though: 2 people doing the same exercise will not necessarily produce the same level of endorphins. The word endorphin actually comes from “endogenous morphine”. Endorphins are endogenous opioid neuropeptides and peptide hormones produced in the pituitary gland and throughout the nervous system.

They will interact with opiate receptors in the brain to turn down your perception of pain. Endorphins also make you happy, feel good, support immune function, have a positive impact on your appetite and release sex hormones.

Apart from exercise, also meditation, sex, massage therapy and acupuncture all stimulate the release of endorphins.

The benefits of aerobic exercise:

  • Aerobic exercise improves symptoms of depression and anxiety. That’s partly due to the release of endorphins, but also because exercise slows the damage and breakdown of brain cells. You have to stick to it for a couple of months though before you see improvement.

  • Aerobic exercise supports growth and slows down the shrinking of your hippocampus - the part of your brain that’s linked to memory and learning. Not only is it better to pick a form or physical exercise that you enjoy in order to keep doing it, but studies also suggest that the regrowth is stronger if you enjoy the activity you’re doing.

  • Aerobic exercise helps increase blood flow to your brain. That’s partially because exercise makes your blood vessels stronger and therefore creates a better flow of blood (and oxygen) to your brain. But it generally increases the supply of oxygen and blood flow to your brain too.

Both aerobic exercise and weight training seem to have a positive effect on your mental flexibility. Neuroplasticity or mental flexibility is the ability of your brain to change when you learn and experience new things. When we (and our brains are young), we are generally better at adapting to change - that capacity declines with age.

Your ability to focus and pay attention seems to go up after intense exercise, which is measured by your individual alpha peak frequency. It has to be intense exercise though, a leisurely jog or bike ride doesn’t have a big impact on it.

So how much do you need to exercise to see the benefits?

Research shows that some of the best benefits come in exercise sessions that last 45-60 minutes, 3-4x per week minimum.

A good place to start is 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least 5x/week. You can always build up from there!

Hope you enjoyed this article, don’t forget to give me a like if you did :-)

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