Take Your Brain For A Walk
An article in “Additude”, a magazine for dealing with ADHD, recently caught my eye. It was called A Med Without Side Effects and was talking about physical activity being good for focus. I have written before about the benefits of exercise on the brain but I thought it might be time for a refresher. Exactly what do we know about physical exercise and the effects of it on the brain? How does physical exercise impact a person with Attention Deficit Disorder? We are all well aware of the effects physical activity has on our body and our physical health. But I think we are still taking trying to absorb the fact that this physical activity affects the brain’s function as well.
Dr. John Ratey was quoted as saying, “For a very small handful of people with ADHD, it (physical activity) may actually be a replacement for stimulants, but for most it’s complementary – something they should absolutely do, along with taking meds, to help increase attention and improve mood.” When someone has Attention Deficit Disorder, his/her brain waves are moving at a slower pace. The ADD brain, when engaged in accomplishing a task, operates using theta and alpha brain waves. These are the brainwaves that we use to calm ourselves down as we start to relax and go to sleep. These are the brainwaves in use when we are daydreaming. They certainly are not the brain waves we want to use when we are trying to be efficient in accomplishing a task. (Editors of Additude, 2008)
What this means is that the brain is not accessing the brain waves that make focus, concentration, and completion of tasks easy. But rather, the person has to work hard to move the brain along because it is in first gear and needs to be in third, fourth or fifth gear. This can be seen especially in the executive part of the brain or the frontal lobe of the brain.
So how can exercise help? Exercise such as walking, running, jumping jacks, and pushups causes your brain to release chemicals. Many of us are aware that endorphins are released into our system, which gives us the “exercise high” after working out. These are the “feel good” chemicals that regulate pleasure and pain. But exercise also releases other chemicals, elevating the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels. These chemicals increase focus and attention.
Some schools are beginning to understand this and implement daily aerobic exercise before the academic day starts. The children who participated in this program (working out before class) made up an average of one year in reading levels and scored 20 percent higher in math tests. (2007 NBC5.com)
So how does this work? Raising your heart rate increases the blood flow to the brain, which gives the brain the nutrients and the oxygen for alertness and mental focus. Aerobic exercise actually grows new brain cells as shown when tested in animals. In neuro-imaging used to observe the effects of exercise on the human brain, researchers found that physical activity changed the brain’s structure and function in ways that improve decision-making. They found increased connections between neurons in parts of the brain that help a person pay better attention. Focus was better and subjects were able to hone in on the relevant information needed to perform tasks. Other research shows that exercise can affect the hippocampus which is an area in the middle of the brain that affects learning and memory. In a study with adult mice, it was found that they doubled their brain cells when they had access to the running wheel. (Patsi Krakoff, 2007)
Walking is especially good for your brain. It increases the amount of blood circulation, oxygen, and glucose that reaches your brain. Because walking isn’t strenuous, your muscles aren’t taking the extra oxygen and glucose that other exercises may use. Because walking oxygenates your brain, it may actually “clear your head”. Walking has been shown to improve memory skills and learning with better concentration and abstract reasoning. (Journal of Applied Psychology, October 2000)
You don’t have to go overboard on the exercise to get the benefits of it. Fifteen to twenty minutes a day of walking three times a week will help. But regardless of what you choose to make your daily priority, if your child has ADD, it would serve him/her well to be taught the daily discipline of exercise. This would be a good coping skill for children so that they will learn to implement a regular exercise regimen. And hopefully then when they are struggling, have an important test, or are overwhelmed and can’t get themselves to move forward, they will fall back on a pattern that was established for them as a child. This may be especially important if the school has taken gym out of the curriculum.
Other ways to incorporate exercise as parents may be to utilize exercise as a “time-out” regime rather than sitting the child in a “time-out”. Have the child do 20 jumping jacks when he is disrespectful or off task on something you requested. Getting that oxygen to the brain will help him complete the task at hand, allow him to redirect himself, and give him the needed step to get back on track.
And these changes in the brain are not just there for the moment, but exercise has been found to change the brain. So if you find yourself or your child in need of more brain alertness, take your brain for a walk!
(2000). In Journal of Applied Psychology.
Editors of Additude. (2008, January 46). A Med Without Side Effects. Attitude .
NBC5. (2007). NBC5.com Patsi Krakoff, M. (2007). Keeping Your Brain Healthy. Retrieved January 21, 2008 from www.mind-FX.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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