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This is Your Brain on... Exercise

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This is Your Brain on... Exercise

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Getting your sweat on does more than just tone the outside of your body—it also causes a series of chemical reactions that help with everything from your mood to your memory. Learning what is happening in your brain can help you use it to your advantage.

A smarter brain. When you exercise you are stressing your body's systems. This mild stress starts a chain reaction to repair the damage by causing your brain to generate new neurons, especially in the hippocampus—the area in charge of learning and memory. These denser neural connections lead to a measurable increase in brainpower.

A younger brain. Our brains begin to lose neurons starting at about age 30, and aerobic exercise is one of the few methods proven to not only stop this loss but build new neural connections, making your brain operate like one much younger. And this is beneficial regardless of age, as research shows that exercise helped improve cognitive function in the elderly.

A happier brain. One of the biggest stories from the past year is about how exercise is just as effective for relieving mild depression and anxiety as medication. And for more severe cases, using exercise in conjunction with anti-depressants produces better results than the meds alone.

A stronger brain. Endorphins, those magic chemicals revered for causing everything from the "runner's high" to an extra push at the end of a triathlon, work by inhibiting your brain's response to pain and stress signals, ergo making exercise less painful and more fun. They also help your brain become more resistant to stress and pain in the future.

So how is it that with all of these great benefits only 15 percent of Americans report exercising regularly? Blame one last trick of our brains: our inherent dislike of delayed gratification. It takes 30 minutes for the endorphins to kick in and as one researcher put it, "While exercise is attractive in theory, it can often be rather painful in actuality, and the discomfort of exercise is more immediately felt than its benefits."

But knowing this can help you conquer the instinct. Figuring out how to work through the initial pain reaps benefits far beyond looking good on the beach next summer.

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