Do you exercise because you're happy or does exercise make you happy?
The link between the brain and the body is fascinating. For a long time science has explored one half of this equation: how our brains tell our bodies what to do. But it does feel like it goes the other way too, doesn’t it? And scientists are slowly starting to uncover the many ways our bodies influence our brains.
Most of us know that physical exertion is good for the brain. But what we don’t know – and what science is still unravelling – is why it’s good for the brain. How does it all work?
One well-known theory is that exercise is good for you because it boosts the levels of feel-good chemicals in your brain: serotonin and dopamine. But other researchers have found that cardiovascular activity increases the amounts of oxygen and glucose (fuel) sent to the brain, which results in better cognitive performance.
Another group of scientists have shown that aerobic exercise leads to a larger brain volume and have put it down to neurogenesis: the growth of new brain cells. It’s pretty mind-blowing to think that a session on the treadmill could lead to the creation of new brain cells! And a separate group hypothesise that controlled and repeated challenge (either physical or mental), builds up the resources needed to meet environment demands and to cope with stress. A mental toughening of sorts.
But sometimes exercise doesn’t feel as mentally exhilarating as science suggests it should. Sometimes after a long sweaty bike ride we don’t feel like we’re growing new brain cells or thinking more clearly or becoming more mentally tough. We just feel exhausted.
Then of course, there are days we’re just not in the mood to begin with. But if we know that working the body makes the mind feel better, how do we use this information to our advantage? How do we put ourselves in the mood for a workout?
Sleep: the bridge between body and brain.
Let’s start with something that the data from our users here at HeadUp clearly illustrates is a big mood motivator, and a vital part of life in general.
Good sleep. And plenty of it.
We’re not the only lab raving about the benefits of sleep, other labs rave too (not at dance parties though, because that would NOT be good for sleep). One group of researchers has linked sleep to muscle recovery. And going the other way, scientists have shown that sleep deprivation leads to weight gain.
But you don’t really need lab rats to tell you that sleep is good for you and makes you feel good. You know this. If you’re someone who likes to work out first thing in the morning (and again, our users’ data shows that most people do), there’s nothing worse than a bad night’s sleep to kill your mojo.
So your next step is clear: do what it takes to get into a good sleep routine.
We suggest you try the following:
1. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. This reinforces your circadian rhythm, which makes your bodily functions operate more efficiently, resulting in you feeling stronger and more energised throughout the day. Start this process by setting your alarm, and getting up at the same time everyday. This will eventually prompt you to fall asleep at the same time each night.
2. Avoid stimulants like coffee in the evenings. One study tested the effects of caffeine on sleep when participants consumed coffee at 0, 3, or 6 hours before bedtime. The group of people who drank coffee 6 hours before bed reported feeling ‘unaffected’ by the caffeine in their systems. But the sleep monitors told a different story: ALL participants experienced sleep disruption. Takeaway message: drink your last coffee of the day at 2pm.
3. Don’t eat too heavy, too late. One study reported that eating too late can lead to an increase in weight, insulin and glucose (linked to diabetes) and cholesterol (linked to heart problems). Another concluded that late eating leads to poor memory. And finally, eating too heavy too late makes it hard to sleep well.
4. Cut down on screen time at night. Your mobile phone, computer, and TV all emit blue light. Exposure to that bluish light during the two hours before bed can stop you from getting a good night’s rest. It can cut down the minutes you sleep, and leave you feeling groggy in the morning. So save the bedroom for the two s’s – sex and sleep.
Waking up refreshed is a sure-fire way for your brain to tell your body to get up and move. It’s what science tells us. It’s what your body tells you. And importantly, it’s what your data is telling us about you.
Be a goal digger.
In addition to catching an appropriate number of zzz’s, you might consider setting yourself some clear, achievable, and measurable goals. Research is increasingly showing that goals are benefical for health: they can increase activity engagement, promote healthy ageing, and enhance athletic performance.
Maybe you want to lose some weight? Maybe you want to improve your cardio fitness? Maybe there’s a pair of pants that you want to fit into again?
Your brain responds to clear markers, so use concrete metrics like your BMI, your waist circumference and your Vo2max to track how you’re going.
There’s nothing more motivating than seeing those numbers improve. There are no ifs, buts or maybes – numbers don’t lie.
Remember: practice patience – especially when you’re starting out.
When you change your diet for the better, or you start working out, you’re not going to see a change on Day 1. And maybe not on Day 7 or Day 14 either.
But change WILL come. Sometimes your brain can be your enemy, and make you feel discouraged and start to wonder what the extra sacrifice and effort is for. These thoughts can trickle down into your actions. So you might start going to the gym less, and eating more. But approaching your health and fitness in this inconsistent fashion is one of the worst things you can do because actually, consistency is key!
So don’t question your progress early on. Give it time. Your brain and your body, your emotions and your exertions will all be in synch soon enough.
At HeadUp, we’re joining more and more dots each day to help you be the best you that you can be.
We’re exploring sleep, we’re investigating matters of the heart and we’re crunching your numbers.
And we’re always in the mood to find out more.