This is an email from Inside Your Head 🧠, a newsletter by Elemental.

Your Brain Likes Burpees

It may not seem like it now, but you’ll feel better if you get up and move

Photo: RapidEye/Getty Images

Welcome back to Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by Dana Smith, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Forwarded by a friend? Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

I bought a Fitbit last week (no, this is not a product placement). My daily goal was 10,000 steps. My total steps the first day? 943. This shortfall — failure by a whopping 10x — was why I finally caved and strapped a tiny computer to my wrist: To tell me how sedentary I have become since the start of the pandemic, with the hope that it would finally motivate me to get off my butt and start practicing what I preach as a health journalist.

Despite our best intentions, it can be so damn hard to get out of our routines and make ourselves move during the day. There are so many excuses, usually work related, that I employ to avoid exercising. “I focus best in the morning, so I need that time to do edits or meet a deadline.” “I have meetings throughout the day, so I don’t have enough time to work out and not be a sweaty mess on my next Zoom call.” And in the evenings: “I haven’t gotten enough done today, so I better keep working until dinner.”

But the truth is, I would be so much more focused and clear-headed — not to mention in a better mood — if I took a break to go for a walk or a run or to do some squats and pushups during the day. And so would you.

Your brain is better with exercise 💪

Doctors and neuroscientists have long espoused the brain benefits of exercise. Working out can enhance memory, speed up reaction times, improve attention, and alleviate depression. It may even stave off neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

In the brain, exercise increases levels of important hormones and neurochemicals that help forge connections between brain cells. The star of the show is a growth hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF.

BDNF helps the brain build new connections, or synapses, between neurons, which are the foundation for learning. Many of these synapses are built in the hippocampus, the brain’s mood and memory hub, and in the prefrontal cortex, which is where higher-level executive functions originate, like decision-making and attention.

Exercise also raises levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endogenous opioids (also known as endorphins), which are critical for regulating mood, motivation, and feelings of reward.

“Exercise seems to be good for practically every function in the brain and body,” says Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA. If exercise were a drug, we would say its benefits were too good to be true.

So what type of exercise is best for your brain? Research suggests that higher-intensity workouts may provide the biggest cognitive benefits, but the mood boost occurs no matter your exertion level. Really, the best exercise regimen is one that you enjoy and will do again the next day.

Try this to find the time

In March, I wrote about how to stay healthy and active while working from home. I’m going to recycle one of the tips I wrote about then because I think it’s a good one (and this time I’m really going to do it).

A lot of people swear by the productivity hack of the Pomodoro Technique where you set a timer for 25 minutes of focus, after which you get a five-minute break. During each break, try doing a different bodyweight exercise: push-ups, crunches, squats, tricep dips, jumping jacks, burpees (although maybe hold off if you have downstairs neighbors), walking lunges, planks, sun salutations — anything that gets your body moving is good.

The other advice you hear a lot is to schedule your workouts; put them on your calendar like any other meeting. With the cognitive benefits exercise provides, it could be the best thing you do for your job all day.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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