January 13, 2011We often talk about the benefits of exercise to personal fitness, strong immune systems and ability to fight off disease. Just as exciting are the positive effects of a physical regimen on mental health and acuity. Recently, number of studies have shown that exercise not only releases endorphins in the brain, it is one of the few ways scientists have discovered to create new neurons! This neurogenesis -- the creation of new neurons -- occurs in the hippocampus, which is the center of learning and memory in the brain. The specific mechanism behind the creation of these neurons is still being explored, but studies show that the effects of these new neurons are more than protective, they are reparative. This is indicated in a comparison between sedentary and active mice, where scientists found that active mice regenerated more sciatic axons -- long, slender projections of a nerve cell that makes contact with other cells, usually other neurons but sometimes muscle or gland cells, at junctions called synapses -- post-injury than sedentary mice. This emphasizes the importance of exercise as we age, when the brain starts to lose nerve tissue.Additionally, the studies suggest that there may be preventative and therapeutic effects against diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's where the loss of neurons occurs. Endorphins are chemicals released by the pituary gland which give relief from pain. They are also believed to enhance the immune system; reduce stress; and delay the aging process. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins sending these chemicals throughout the body. Endorphin release does vary between individuals, but this relief usually occurs within approximately 30 minutes after the beginning of physical activity. While vigorous aerobic exercise is a strong stimulant leading to endorphin release, other activities such as meditation, acupuncture or massage therapy can lead to natural endorphin production. These two factors, neurogensis and the release of endorphins enhance the positive effects of exercise on mental and psychological health.
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