Flexing Your Mental Muscles

We all know that exercise can help keep our bodies strong and healthy, but can it affect brain function as well? A recent story on NPR highlights research that explores the benefits of physical exercise for mental wellness. Among the findings, scientists have discovered that exercise can contribute to everything from relieving depression to alleviating Parkinson’s–like symptoms.

So how exactly are physical activity and mental function linked? “The nervous system is made up of the brain, the spine, and nerves running throughout the body, sending chemical messages to our sensory organs,” says Kripalu faculty member Steven Leonard. “Any change to one of these elements sends a ripple to the rest. Thus, cardiovascular activity requires the whole nervous system to shift, affecting our mental and emotional states, not just the physical.”

Though these scientific findings are recent, the mind-body connection has been explored by yogis for centuries. As Steven points out, one of the fundamental tenets of yoga is the integration of all our systems. Yoga, after all, means union, and “one of yoga’s aims is to balance the body, mind, and spirit, and to understand how they influence each other,” Steven says. “The body and mind are not two separate parts, but rather one and the same.” So when we’re moving, breathing, and sweating—whether it be in a dance class, on the yoga mat, or going for a run—the enlivening effects this has on the body also boost emotional well-being.

With this understanding, Steven says, we can bring new awareness to physical activity. “Everything we do is not just an exercise for the body, or the brain, or the spirit,” says Steven, “but an experience for our whole, multidimensional self.”

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