Whenever I come back from a long hike, and especially a climb to a mountain top, my friends are convinced there are drugs at summit because I come back with my spirits soaring.
Lately more is being written about exercise and its impact on our brains. I have read that a good workout increases levels of important hormones and neurochemicals that help forge new connections between brain cells; this may even lead to the birth of neurons in an area of the brain called the hippocampus, the mood and memory hub.
Lest you think I’m a pretend scientist, here is something more authoritative from Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology at UCLA:
“Exercise seems to be good for practically every function in the brain and body. Every time you work out, your muscles, fat cells, and liver release a variety of molecules into the bloodstream. One of the most crucial changes is the release of a growth hormone called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. When it comes to exercise’s positive effects on the brain, BDNF is the star.
“This is one of the most important molecules for brain function in connection to the effects of exercise,” says Gomez-Pinilla. “BDNF is very important for all of the basic processes related to learning and memory in the brain.”
Runner’s High (Maybe Let’s Call It Hiker’s High)
Anyone who’s felt a “runner’s high” — or just felt better after a workout — has experienced the way exercise elevates neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and endogenous opioids (also known as endorphins), which are critical for regulating mood, motivation, and feelings of reward. While researchers are less clear about how these changes start, they appear to be connected to BDNF.
If exercise were a drug, we would say its benefits were too good to be true. Not only does it keep us healthy and help us live longer, it makes us smarter and happier, too. Working out can enhance memory, speed up reaction times, improve attention, and alleviate depression. Some claim that it may even stave off neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Julia Basso, a senior research associate in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech, says people who experience the biggest gains in their fitness show the biggest cognitive changes, suggesting higher-intensity workouts provide extra benefit. There has been a lot of advocacy around interval training which entails short spurts of high activity interspersed with lower-activity breaks. That is exactly what you get from uphill hiking – you push until heart rate says to take a breather and then go at it again. However, the mood boosts occur no matter the intensity of the activity.
“You could go for a walk and your mood is going to be lifted up. But you need higher intensity to get cognitive improvements,” Basso says. “The more you’re getting your heart rate up higher and higher, the longer-term fitness benefits you’re going to have, and then the longer-term cognitive benefits.”
If you’re just getting started, though, or you’re limited by age or injury, even walking can bring about some of these changes. The two most important things are: 1) start slow and build gradually to higher levels, and 2) find something that you like doing and stick with it – it needs commitment and motivation – that comes from finding a new passion in life! That is the theme of my book, The Dog Who Took Me Up a Mountain (HCI and Simon & Schuster)