You’ve probably heard the phrase, “exercise is good for your mind, body, and soul” before, and not thought much of it. The “body and soul” part makes sense – exercise increases your metabolism, decreases your risk for several diseases, stimulates muscle growth, and boosts energy. Physical activity also increases endorphin levels and distracts from daily worries.
But what does exercising do for the “mind”? Does it stimulate cognitive activity? Will exercising make you smarter or more efficient? And how exactly can you turn your body into an endorphin factory?
Well, in order to answer that question, we have to consider the biggest roadblocks to optimal brain function: bad mood, and tiredness. Stress can cause decreased serotonin levels, which in turn decreases your mood even further, because serotonin is a mood-regulating hormone. Low serotonin can make it hard to sleep, making the vicious cycle spin even faster. (But not the good, Soul Cycle way of spinning your wheels.)
However, exercising regularly changes the way your body utilizes serotonin, so it can do more with less. You can change your brain chemistry this way over time just by going for brisk walks, swims, bike rides, etc.
So, exercise is good for the “mind, body, and soul” after all, but the “mind” part is caused by positive hormonal changes that ultimately make your brain operate better! There are other hormones called “growth factors,” in charge of growing new blood vessels and neural pathways in your brain. This is important because when we get older, we start losing neurons, which are brain cells, and our brains even start to shrink. So, since training your body can regenerate growth in your brain, it’s definitely something to make a habit of!
Now it’s clear how exercise is good for the whole mind-body-soul trifecta; in fact, the endorphin rush that happens during exercise is good for all three of these things at once. Endorphins relieve pain and make you happy, which studies have shown has a big effect on your brain’s reward system, and makes you more likely to exercise again in the future to enjoy those positive, alert, tingly feelings again.
Turn Your Body Into An Endorphin Factory
Endorphins are good for mind and soul alike because they’ve been proven to combat depression and anxiety over time. They’re also good for your body because they can combat chronic pain. A study on people with fibromyalgia showed that exercising as frequently as possible for them raised their endorphin levels from previously below-average, and they self-reported having less pain. It’s easy to see how endorphins are addictive, since they provide so much benefit to both body and spirit that your brain realizes this, and wants to encourage you to make more!
If you’re not the world’s most in-shape person right now, or perhaps have an illness/injury that stops you from running or other more high-impact exercise, fear not! Most people have the impression that to turn your body into an endorphin factory, you have to be super intense and working to the point of total exhaustion. This isn’t true.
Anything you can do to circulate blood flow throughout your body is vastly better than not exercising, and low-impact exercise is vastly better than overdoing it and hurting yourself! As Spine-Health.com says, “Low impact exercise can elevate the heart rate without jarring the spine and worsening back pain…”
If you’re just getting started, there is nothing shameful about exercising for just 5 or 10 minutes, and working your way up from there. Invest in some good walking shoes and start strolling around your neighborhood. If you’re ready to add some resistance and intensity, either try ankle weights or up the resistance on an elliptical machine or a stationary bike. The best thing about stationary bikes is that there are all sorts of variations in models for those with chronic pain, disability, etc., and they’re often used in physical therapy.
Another great exercise practice that has a lot of potential for modification based on your experience level is yoga. For example, if you struggle to do a “high lunge,” in which one leg is bent 90° and the knee is parallel with the foot, while the other leg is extended behind you, you can do a “low lunge” instead. You’ll keep the knee of the leg behind you on the ground, without having to worry about balancing on your feet in this unwieldy, but strengthening and stretching pose. Modifications exist for almost all yoga poses, and this is true in the other direction as well — more difficult modifications for even deeper stretches, or for more anaerobic workout intensity.
All of these options increase endorphin production and make you feel great, which is your body’s crystal clear way of telling you, keep going! Making time for exercise or motivating yourself to expend the effort isn’t always easy, but these feel-good chemicals will help you in your quest to make exercise a normal part of your routine.