Time to Exercise

As you begin your new academic year, you are undoubtedly thinking about how to manage your schedule so that you can study and prepare for your classes. Your schedule must be efficient and practical, and will hopefully allow time for exercise. What? Exercise? Why exercise? Especially if time demands are so great? Let’s try to answer that question thoughtfully.

Exercise has proven beneficial effects on health. Though you are young and might feel invincible, the health patterns you establish today will have a profound effect on your health in the future. Exercise reduces your risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, depression, and hypertension. High school students who engage in sport or regular exercise are eight times more likely to exercise as adults than are students who don’t.

Our bodies evolved in such a way that they depends on exercise—or, to put it another way, we evolved as hunters and gatherers, lifestyles that require frequent physical activity that is moderately or vigorously intense. Even though technology allows us to function without hunting and gathering, our evolutionary essence has not changed. If the body is not doing what it has evolved to do, then the body will develop dis-ease. Think about the immune system, which seems rather removed from hunting and gathering. The white blood cell is the cornerstone of fighting unwanted viruses and bacteria. The white blood cell has various receptors, one of which is an opiate receptor.

Opiate receptor? You mean like opium? Here is a short story about that. As we co-evolved with plants on this great planet, the plants helped to shape our nervous system (the plants need to survive as well). During this process, our nervous system developed receptors that allow us to cohabitate with plants. Indeed, we have developed brain receptors for chemicals that are produced within certain plants, such as the opium-producing poppy plant. When used strategically for medicinal purposes, opium and its derivatives are very useful, and can be provided with great compassion to those who are suffering with refractory pain.

Coming back to white blood cells and opiate receptors, our body makes its own opium, known as an endogenous opiate. So what has this to do with exercise? When you finish a great workout (or hunt), your body feels rejuvenated, sometimes described as a “runner’s high.” What happens is that this workout leads to endogenous opiate production, and thus the high. In addition, the endogenous opiates bind to white blood cell receptors, causing the white blood cells to function better. Think about how many times you were stressed out and not taking care of yourself. You feel awful, your endogenous opiate system is shut down, and you are more vulnerable to infections. The white blood cell needs endogenous opiates. The white blood cell needs exercise.

Okay, you might say, I understand exercise might be good for my health. But seriously, I am healthy enough, and I really have to study. Well, that seems to be a line that even some school administrators believe. But look at the stark reality of exercise in our country. The recommended amount of exercise for a high school student is one hour or more of physical exercise every day. Most of the one hour or more a day should be moderate- or vigorous-intensity physical exercise, and you should do vigorous-intensity exercise at least three days a week.

What is moderate-intensity exercise? From a cardiopulmonary reserve viewpoint, you can talk but you can’t sing; you are winded just enough that you can’t utilize your breath for song. Vigorous-intensity exercise means that you even having trouble talking; you are definitely winded. In the United States, three out of four high school students do not engage in the recommended amount of physical activity. Additionally, obesity has tripled over the past 30 years, and the United States had, for quite a while, been the fattest country on this planet. (We are now second, behind Mexico.) Even more depressing is this: your generation is projected to live five years less than your parents’ generation. In addition, your generation will live a less healthy life than your parents’. Another first place for the United States: this is the first generation to be the living example of such dire statistics.

Okay, okay, you might now say, enough moralizing and preaching. I’m busy. Well, maybe you’re not that busy. Please bear with me and allow me to move away from health issues and societal woes that may not have convinced you to exercise. Let’s talk about getting good grades.

More importantly, let’s talk about improving cognition. Science has demonstrated that exercise is directly, proportionally, and positively correlated with academic achievement. In other words, students who exercise regularly improve their cognition, and, on average, perform better in school and on cognitive tests (e.g., SAT) than do non-exercising students. The reasons why are fascinating.

Here is the essential reason: exercise facilitates synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus. Whoa! Big words! Here’s the translation. The hippocampus is a critical area of the brain because it is a key structure in memory, spatial learning, and connectivity to other cognitive brain areas. We used to believe that the adult brain (your brain is a young adult’s) could not grow new nerve cells, and that the only possibility was progressive nerve cell death over time. We now know that the brain is plastic. No, not the synthetic material that is non-organic and a major source of pollution on planet Earth. Plasticity means that the human brain can develop numerous new connections in response to certain stimuli. Exercise is one such stimulus, and an extraordinarily powerful one.

Yes, exercise is a powerful stimulus to the brain because it leads to the production of three key brain neurochemicals: brain-derived neurotrophic factor, insulin-like growth factor, and vascular endothelial-derived growth factor. With regular exercise, these three brain neurochemicals lead to an amazing array of brain changes: (1) improved hippocampus function; (2) improved brain plasticity; (3) improved learning; (4) modulation of depression; and (5) formation of new brain blood vessels, which allows the neurochemicals to work even better. Wow! All of that from exercise? What are you waiting for? Studying is only part of the picture. If you want to really improve your brain health (and your grades and learning curve), then get moving now.

So be prepared next time you are asked the dreaded question: “Honey, did you finish your homework?” You can answer with a runner’s high smile: “No, but I did my exercise.  And I feel smarter already!”

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