You’ve probably seen the meme making its rounds across social media, saying, "Now that I’ve been through a pandemic, I know why so many Renaissance portraits are women lying around, bra-free and exhausted."
There’s nothing quite like the Groundhog Day-like experience of one day blending into the other. This can make even the most active, type-A person grow weary and sluggish. While it’s completely normal (even expected) to feel stagnant and unmotivated to move these days, the truth is, it’s more essential than ever to stay active in difficult times. Moving our bodies doesn’t just promote physical health—it’s vital for maintaining and improving brain health, too. In fact, 10 days without fitness can cause our brains to start losing cognitive function, says Celina Nadelman, MD, a board-certified cytopathologist and fine needle specialist.
Here, Dr. Nadelman and other experts explain what can happen to our brains when we don’t move enough—and why it’s so important for both mind and mood to squeeze in a walk, quick sweat, or other physical activity every day.
Our brains have a higher risk of anxiety and depression.
Many people are experiencing a heightened sense of dread during the pandemic, and part of that could be due to prolonged periods of inactivity. According to Katy Firsin, ND, MPST, a naturopathic physician, when we exercise, the body releases feel-good chemicals, like anandamide and endocannabinoids directly to our brain. These compounds not only block out pain receptors, but increase feelings of joy, she says. When we have a deficiency in these important hormones, we tend to feel more anxious and depressed. “These chemicals also have an effect on pain, and there’s a direct link between the aches and pains that come from being sedentary and our mental health,” Firsin adds.
To fight against this phenomenon, you don’t have to spend hours running on a treadmill. Firsin says it’s enough to track your steps, so you get up and frequently move, use a standing desk, and go for walks.
Our brains have trouble seeing the bright side.
Even if you can usually find the silver lining in all situations, lately, you might keep seeing the worst-case scenario—and your lack of activity could be to blame. Exercise helps to take the edge off and provides an outlet for us to release negative emotions, explains psychologist Yvonne Thomas, PhD. “Whether it’s through cardio-related physical activities or more mild, less intense movement like walking or doing housework, a person is able to literally work out some emotions by breathing more deeply and by actively re-channeling emotions through one's body movements,” she says. “It can set off the feel-good endorphins that can be calming and relaxing.”
When we sit on the sofa all afternoon or bail on a digital yoga class with a friend, those not-so-great emotions fester and intensify, creating a cycle of Debbie Downer thinking.
Our brains struggle to solve problems.
Think about the last time you ran into a roadblock at work that you had to navigate. Did you get stuck trying to brainstorm solutions? Or were you able to think creatively and recall past situations for guidance? If you found yourself more on the struggle than the success bus, it could be due to lack of exercise. As Dr. Nadelman explains, physical activity improves our cognitive functions, from attention span, academic performance, and problem-solving to memory and information-processing speed. It also helps us remain flexible while multitasking and decision-making.
“Physical activity improves cognitive functioning via neuroplasticity, as well as increased synthesis and expression of neuropeptides and hormones,” Dr. Nadelman says. “These substances help with neuroplasticity and neuronal repair.”
Without even low-impact fitness, our brain can feel sluggish and tired, making it difficult to muster up motivation or deliver on responsibilities and deadlines. The next time you feel as if your day is dragging, consider doing a quick cardio workout for 15 minutes. In addition to long-term wellness, the burst alone will perk you up.
Our brains develop self-deprecating thought patterns.
You know that moment of euphoria following a super-sweaty, challenging workout where you feel like you conquered the world? You feel strong, unbeatable and excited for your recovery snack or meal. No matter what type of movement, Thomas says fitness boosts confidence and offers a sense of accomplishment. On the other end of the spectrum, not exercising has the opposite impact, decreasing our self-esteem and image. “This is because the person who's too sedentary can feel and think of themselves [negatively] in many ways,” Thomas says. “The person may feel less vibrant, fun, productive, energetic, and so on.”
Once these thoughts begin, they’re tough to beat. It becomes a cycle of putting ourselves down, not having enough energy to work out, and then feeling worse afterward.
Our brains can't manage stress as well.
In every stressful situation, we either have a flight or a fight reaction. If we are fliers, we flee, for fear of facing whatever trouble brews ahead. If we are fighters, we stick with it, sometimes becoming combative or defensive. Dr. Nadelman says this is an adaptive biological outcome that’s not quite as helpful as it was in caveman days. Most of the time, people can find a happy medium between these two extremes and handle anxiety as it comes their way.
However, when we don’t have a regular schedule for physical activity, our brain releases the stress hormone, cortisol, making it trickier to manage our emotions effectively. “Modern-day stressors are usually not transient and increase cortisol in a sustained manner,” she says. “This increase in cortisol has neurotoxic effects on the brain, which can damage the hippocampus by decreasing neuropeptide BDNF expression, and lead to depression.” With aerobic exercise, we lower our neuroendocrine reactivity and reduce our biological response to stress, thus naturally feeling calmer and more in control.
Much like you prioritize family time, your job, and sleep, make physical activity a non-negotiable priority every day for optimal brain health—whether it’s a yoga session, brisk walk, bike ride, or accomplishing some serious housework. Dr. Nadelman says even 30 minutes a day improves thinking skills, information processing, brain cell growth and resilience, stress management, memory, academic performance, and can help prevent or manage mental illness and neurodegenerative disorders. That’s a lot of bang for half-an-hour of your time.