The Secret Benefit of Exercise That Almost No One Talks About


You probably know that exercise will make you look better, live longer, have more sex, etc. etc. etc. You know all of this. You're lazy, not stupid. Clearly those positive changes aren't enough for you to resist the siren song of Netflix calling you back to your recliner. 

While it's totally fine if you're aiming for a dad bod, there's a pretty good chance you don't want to settle for dementia. That's right: it turns out that your brain needs a fitness regimen just as much as your ass does, because the benefits of exercise extend well beyond your body. 

You'll avoid cognitive decline

When you're in your 20s or 30s, the only cognitive decline you typically have to worry about is the kind that happens on Friday and Saturday nights. As you age, though, the habits you form when you're younger can have a deep impact on how things turn out later in life. In fact, scientists have found that, contrary to popular opinion, exercise can help you generate new brain cells, even as an adult, particularly in the hippocampus.

Why is this important for preventing cognitive decline? The hippocampus is the part of the brain that's responsible for long-term memories and spatial navigation. The bad news: it naturally shrinks as you get older, leading to dementia and cognitive decline. You can probably guess that the good news is that exercise can actually increase the size of your hippocampus, by as much as 2%.

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You'll improve your ability to learn new skills

Napoleon Dynamite was right when he said that girls only want boyfriends with skills. But you can't master your nunchuck or bowhunting skills if your brain is working like a tub of lard. 

Researchers have found that not only does just five months of exercise lead to increased physical fitness, but it also increases blood flow to the cerebral cortex, aka the part of the brain responsible for memory, thoughts, and perceptions. This helped the subjects (who were monkeys, but still!) show significant improvements in how fast they learned new skills. 

You'll keep cool under pressure

Stress is inevitable, but how you react to it is totally up to you. As funny as it can be to watch people lose their shit, you don’t want to be that guy. No one wants be friends with, or date, or really even be around that guy. 

Once again, working out regularly is the secret to maintaining a Buddha-esque level head. When you exercise, you’re basically pumping feel-good neurotransmitters known as endorphins throughout your body. For your brain, it's kind of akin to riding a natural, totally legal morphine high. When you feel this good, you’re less likely to lose it on your co-workers. And when your body feels like a 10, you can bet that your mood and your libido will skyrocket, which will also keep you feeling at your peak.

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You don't have to be a marathoner to reap the rewards

It doesn't take much to get the mental benefits of exercise. Working out for just 30 minutes four to five times a week -- even if you have to fake excitement for it -- can lead to all of the benefits above.

That faking-it part is important, too, because a lot of people assume they either like exercise or they don't, and there's nothing to be done about it. The results come whether you like doing it or not, just like your muscles would get bigger if you were forced to do biceps curls every day.

Fake it 'til you make it, just like that smile you give your boss when she asks you to stay later on a Friday.

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Devan Ciccarelli is a writer and marketing specialist who has a thing for big brains. Follow her on Twitter: @DevanCiccarelli.