Exercise for Your Brain

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It is no secret that within the veteran community there is an epidemic regarding mental health.  Veteran suicides always seem to be reaching a new all time high.  There are campaigns like “22 A Day” which aims to draw attention to veteran suicide rates.  But what gets our brothers and sisters to this point?  TBI?  PTSD? Depression?  I’d say yes to all the above.

We all couldn’t wait until the day we got our DD-214 in hand and could tell the military to pound sand.  But then what?  We were no longer with the men and women we had spent 20+ hours a day with for at least four years.  We had no purpose or mission to accomplish.  Perhaps the plans we had made for life after the military fell apart.  Perhaps we got out and have been working an unrewarding backbreaking job.  Now that we’re on your own there’s a new financial stress, divorce, and so on.  These are all external factors and yes they are pretty damn depressing.

Traumatic brain injuries getting the best of you?  I’d say so.  A TBI has physically altered your brain physiology.

PTSD haunting you?  PTSD has crept into your life by disrupting your cognitive skills.

I’m here to tell you, you can correct or improve your brain health with one simple remedy: EXERCISE!  Before you write this off, hear me out.  I’m not talking about strapping your ruck sack on at 0430 and going on a 10K run with your NCO’s yelling at you the whole way, or the battalion sergeant major threatening to secure your weekend liberty if you fall out, I’m taking about finding 20-40 minutes to get your blood pumping and take care of your brain.

Here are some scientific facts taken right from the attached links.  Wendy Suzuki gives a great presentation and I took some notes from her incase you don’t have time to watch the video or can’t watch it at work.

The front of your brain contains the prefrontal cortex which controls your decision making, focus, attention, and projects your personality.  Then you have your left and right temporal lobes, and deep within there lies the hippocampus which is where you form and maintain memories.  Hmmm, so if my hippocampus and prefrontal cortex aren’t firing on all cylinders it could manifest in PTSD or depression, or be an effect of TBI.

If you are experiencing these symptoms you may be interested to find that exercise boosts your mood, increases energy levels, helps with focus and attention, and offers long term memory improvements.  While the links below provide numerous benefits to brain health through exercise, here’s the bottom line: exercise promotes the production of neurotransmitters.  If you’re a carb eater you will be interested to know how the brain uses glucose.  Right now there is a debate surrounding if the brain prefers glucose or ketones.  All the sports science texts discuss the brains use of glucose, but newer research indicates the brain may prefer to operate on ketones.  Regardless, research has indicated the brain devouring glucose during exercise, just like muscles burning up stored glycogen.  Scientists were wondering what the brain was doing with all that glucose and their findings indicated it was using the fuel to make more neurotransmitters.  Along with this, some have theorized depression is caused by a depletion of neurotransmitters and the glucose had gone to parts of the brain where depletion had been detected.

Scientists are now treating the brain like a muscle and recommending we do the same.  Some people exercise to change the appearance of their bodies, well why not exercise to strengthen our brains.  In sum, exercising 1) produces immediate effects on the brain by increasing levels of neurotransmitters, improving reaction times, and focus, 2) produces long lasting effects by changing brain anatomy and physiology, producing new brain cells within the hippocampus – increasing its volume and improving long term memory, improving attention in the prefrontal cortex, and promoting long term increases in “good mood neurotransmitters,” 3) has protective effects on the brain by growing the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus.

I’d like to close with a quote from Dr. John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who said in an Experience Life article attached below, “Our brains are constantly growing; they can even be rewired. And exercise is the key.”

If a TBI or PTSD has rewired our brain one way, than through exercise we can rewire it another way, a more positive way.

https://www.ted.com/talks/wendy_suzuki_the_brain_changing_benefits_of_exercise#t-107491

https://experiencelife.com/article/this-is-your-brain-on-exercise/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24026850

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jun/18/how-physical-exercise-makes-your-brain-work-better

https://www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2018/02/20/study-finds-link-between-physical-fitness-and-brain-health/#482d4ae72c9c

https://www.consumerreports.org/exercise-fitness/how-to-exercise-for-brain-health/

https://nicm.edu.au/news/exercise_increases_brain_size,_new_research_finds

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Author: James Conner , USMC (Ret.)

I am a 20 year United States Marine Corps veteran. I spent 10 years as an infantryman participating in many overseas deployments to include multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Currently living in Ireland, where I am enrolled as a student at the University of Limerick getting my degree in Exercise Science. Certified Fitness Trainer, Sports Nutrition Specialist,  Precision Nutrition Level 1 Coach.