“Get some fresh air”. The benefits on brain and mind
You have heard it many times from parents, friends, colleagues. Whenever you go through a challenging time, a heartbreak, an exam, a significant stress or disappointment in an area of your life that really matters to you, somebody at some point has suggested “go out, it will refresh your mind ” and most likely you thought: “as if it will help!”
Truth is…it really does. I often have this conversation with my clients. Leaving the house when they are feeling quite low and unhappy, locked in a negative perception of their life, can make a difference . When they manage to find the sufficient energy and motivation to step out, the benefits may not be visible straight away but they are very likely to be there once they go back home. Why is that? Because something, even a small item of the perception of our situation and difficulties changes just by walking and briefly changing our surroundings. It could be a window shop, a word we overhear from a lady walking next to us, the coffee order we make, that bright red apple we see at the vegetables shop. The brain records new stimuli and this simple fact creates a mini shuffle in our thoughts. It is very similar to those magical kaleidoscopes we use to play with as children. If you shake them just slightly, what you will see will not look exactly the same as what you perceived before.
Of course I am well aware that people who are experiencing severe depression have a great difficulty even in finding the energy to leave their bed and not being able to go out contributes to their depression. But when they do, with the support of professional treatment, it is an achievement that provides them with a great sense of accomplishment. Problems will not suddenly disappear but there is likely to be a little more energy to face them. If we not only leave the house but also succeed in doing some physical exercise, the benefits are remarkable. Yes, we have heard this one even more often. “Healthy mind in a healthy body”, “you should go for a run”. It is undeniable that exercising is healthy and necessary for our wellbeing. But what is really fascinating is what research has discovered fairly recently: aerobic exercise is the only activity that we know so far that regenerates our brain. Literally. It helps producing new neurons, most likely in the hippocampus , an area of the brain linked with memory and learning. Furthermore, the increase in neurogenesis ( birth of new neurons) has been associated with reduction in depressive mood in rats. (Bjørnebekk, Mathe, and Stefan Brene, 2005). Additionally, several studies have come to the conclusion that medium-intensity exercise increases the activation of the frontal lobe, an area of the brain which is key for emotional regulation and problem solving. This may explain why many runners have so often reported not only increased positive mood but also solutions to their problems “magically” popping into their mind after their run. It is also worth mentioning that aerobic exercise has been associated with a more effective response to stress and anxiety , including a better protection for future stress. And how not to mention the secondary benefit of getting out and about , up and down: getting tired. After a walk, run, swim or gym class, we normally reach a state of a positive physical tiredness that helps switch our brain off, leading to a more restorative sleep . In turn, a good night sleep leads to greater energy levels in the morning which helps facing the day with a more positive perception of the reality.
It is important to acknowledge that sometimes getting to a satisfactory level of fitness proves hard to achieve in a short period of time and it requires some patience and motivation to keep going. This takes me to my initial suggestion to start with: Get out and get some fresh air.