Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Exercise & State of Mind

Jan 16, 2020

Exercise improves brain health in three important ways, it:

  1. increases blood flow (which improves the distribution of nutrients and the elimination of waste);
  2. raises important neurotransmitter levels (serotonin influences mood; norepinephrine impacts motivation; and dopamine improves satisfaction); and
  3. produces the brain cell building block Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF, which protects existing brain cells, helps the birth of new brain cells in the memory-processing hippocampus, and encourages brain cell connections, important for learning and thinking).

Moderately challenging exercise also enhances state of mind. Endocannabinoids, the neurotransmitters that are mimicked by the THC in marijuana, improve mood and diminish pain. The amygdala (the brain’s panic button) and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for reasoning and planning) have extensive endocannabinoid receptors. When endocannabinoids dock in these receptors, anxiety is calmed and feelings of contentment surge. Jogging, cycling, walking on an inclined treadmill, and hiking cause an increase in endocannabinoids. Participating in a physical activity that is moderately difficult for you for at least 20 minutes will increase endocannabinoids in your brain.

Exercise can make it easier to cope with stressful experiences. Researchers called over 2,000 participants, ages 33 to 84, every night for eight days. On days when participants were active, stressful work and personal events were less taxing.

Busy lawyers should not miss workouts. Research requiring active adults to reduce their physical activity resulted in impaired mental well-being. Participants experiencing forced periods of inactivity reported increased fatigue, anxiety, hostility, and depression, as well as a decline in life satisfaction.

Takeaway: A commitment to regular exercise is an investment in enhanced brain health and state of mind.

Sources

  1. Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 828-834 (2013), online at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2227155.
  2. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement 13, 16-17, 23 (2019); Debra S. Austin, Killing Them Softly: Neuroscience Reveals How Brain Cells Die from Law School Stress and How Neural Self-Hacking can Optimize Cognitive Performance, 59 Loy. L. Rev. 791, 802, 815-16 (2013), online at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2227155.
  3. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement 24 (2019).
  4. Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement 13 (2019).
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