Embrace the Wobble: The Brain High on Exercise
Updated: Aug 22, 2018
Disclaimer: The following information is a synopsis of research from the book Healthy Brain, Happy Life by Dr. Wendy Suzuki, knowledge gained in my education, and my yoga instructor training. I am not a medical professional, nor am I promoting any books or workout regimens. This is my journey with exercise, mostly vinyasa yoga (the type of yoga that combines breaths to movements) and power yoga (a mixture of vinyasa flow with weights), research, and how I learned how to improve my cognition, memory, and give my brain it's breath back.
Each time I think about my journey with yoga, I laugh to myself and smile about how I ended up where I am today with this practice. If you've been following along with my blog, you know that I have had multiple traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and back issues that lead to complications with my health. For years I struggled to overcome my body's limitations to find an exercise that worked for me that would not have an additional negative impact on my body. An important lesson that I learned during this hard time of my life was: it is obvious what not being active does to our bodies, but we do not realize how the brain is impacted when being deprived of exercise.
Summer of 2017, I was living in San Diego for an internship at a brain treatment center. One of my roommates at the time and best friend Zoie (pictured on the right), asked me to attend a yoga class with her. I have to be honest - my first thought was, "Not a chance." At the time, I had heard the stereotype that yoga was just stretching and that it was not a workout. I had always been curious about yoga and the philosophy behind it, but I never allowed myself to explore it. I was at the peak of my weight gain and health issues and was desperate to establish an exercise routine that would be beneficial. I remember thinking, "Maybe this could be it," so I decided to say yes and try it out. I vividly remember getting ready to leave for the class in tennis shoes and a huge t-shirt. My other roommate and great friend Vivienne (pictured in the middle), kindly chuckled and told me that I should probably wear flip flops and way less clothing because I would not be wearing shoes while in the class and I would be in a heated room with humidity.
So there I was freaking out as I went to this class and when I got there, I realized that it was not the beginners level class. I looked at Zoie, "You're joking right?" She laughed and reassured me that everything would be fine and suggested that I follow the instructor. The biggest lesson that I learned from this experience was to always say yes to new adventures because I was entirely wrong about yoga. This class not only made me feel comfortable to learn, but allowed me to embrace the wobble of a beginner yogi while doing so. Because of this leap of faith, I found exactly what I was searching for over the previous few years of my life.
One vinyasa yoga class and one yoga sculpt class prompted me to explore the practice more deeply which allowed me to slowly transition into who I wanted to be. I was quickly reminded of the passion to workout and the feeling of seeing results. All of my hesitation with the practice of yoga held me back for so many years, and I will always be grateful that this practice sort of fell into my life (Thanks, Zo). When I started practicing regularly, I was able to pay more attention and stay focused, was performing better in school, was less fatigued, and was generally excited to be alive again. It was because of these benefits that pushed me to want to grow more in my personal practice and I am now a yoga sculpt instructor with plans to continue my training with other types of yoga.
It was not until I decided to become a yoga instructor and began training that I realized that yoga was undoubtedly related to Neuroscience and how science could explain why my life was changing for the better.
I was in the height of my Neuroscience degree, in yoga teacher training and was mastering the many ways to improve the brain. Unfortunately, there is no pill or supplement that can enhance our brain and highlight the best features of cognition like the media likes to portray; but there is the power of exercise to reveal these effects. Some of the most exciting research right now is exploring how exercise can enhance the brain. Recent research has found that aerobic exercise improved reaction times, focus, cognition, mood and memory!
Society is not blind to this information and small bits of this data has been shared. Recently, there was a viral post floating around the web which taught viewers how to use confidence poses for 30-60 seconds to decrease stress. The power poses used to initiate confidence decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) in the body, which allows people to be courageous, perform better in interviews, presentations, and speeches. Imagine this practice for a longer period of time (preferably 60 minutes) and performed four or five times a week. This is the effect that aerobic exercise has on the brain.
Intentional, aerobic exercise consists of high-paced movement paired with mental mantras or intentions. When the body is moving at this pace for multiple days during the week with the awareness of the intention to better the brain and body, humans receive the benefits of a demanded magical pill. The most exciting fact that I learned while completing research was that exercise is responsible for the majority of positive changes seen within the brain. This includes: increases in cortex size, increase in attention, enhanced levels of brain growth factors which promotes neurogenesis (the production of new brain cells), improved measures of well-being in TBI patients (which I can definitely attest to!), and boosts the production of neurotransmitters and in turn increases mood. The daily habit of exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, enhances the volume and size of the hippocampus (the structure responsible for memory), and is correlated with lower rates of dementia later in life.
When I found my niche in yoga, I was able to experience my brain high on exercise. Fortunately, yoga is only one type of aerobic exercise, especially when done in a heated, humid studio; there are many types of aerobic exercises that will have the same effects on the brain. This week, I challenge you to take a yoga class, take a spin class, go for a run, or to slowly begin to introduce this into your life. I encourage you to increase your aerobic exercise in anyway that you can. Try to wake up 30 minutes earlier to go for a brisk early morning walk, add cardio bursts to your lifting sessions, or take your kids on a walk after school. The secret isn't a brain pill or supplement, but rather a lifestyle formula to enhance your brain. Always allow your brain to exercise and embrace the wobble along the journey - this alone will transform your life.