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That blissful post-exercise feeling is truly in your head
Feel better after exercising? It's in your head

Date published: 10/10/2010

HAVE YOU ever felt a sense of euphoria after a good workout? You might have walked out of the gym feeling a whole lot better than when you walked in, maybe more energetic, clear-headed and optimistic about life.

You might have thought it was just in your head--and you are absolutely right! Exercise has a wonderful effect on your brain.

Research continues to show that exercise enhances mood, improves sleep quality, decreases pain perception and stimulates the formation of new brain cells and their connections. What a wonderful "medicine"--if only it came in a pill.

As a neurologist and sleep medicine specialist, I deal with the health of the brain. I encourage my patients to exercise if permitted by their physical abilities. Exercise helps those who have insomnia, sleep apnea, headaches, depression or anxiety. It also helps those who have suffered a stroke or have Parkinson's disease, to name a few of the conditions I treat.

Those who set a routine and make exercise a priority improve their mental and physical health, not to mention their waist size.

stimulate the brain

We all know that exercise has a very positive effect on our cardiac health. But its benefits may be more far-reaching than you realize.

Did you know that we lose lots of nerve cells after age 30? The good news is that exercise increases the number of connections and nerve cells, a process called neurogenesis. This causes your brain to establish a denser network--which helps you perform faster and store more information in your memory.

A group of sedentary seniors who began routine aerobic exercise showed an improvement in their ability to plan, schedule and memorize, according to one study. Research also shows that exercise helps injured neurons by stimulating the regeneration of their axons--the connections that help two neurons communicate.

Exercise, therefore, plays a role in the repair of the brain and can slow the aging of the brain.


Sleep is another function of the brain that is enhanced by exercise. This is important because a good night's sleep has a lot to do with optimizing our memory, attention, drive and planning.

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If you have a medical condition such as heart disease, talk to your doctor before embarking on a routine. Here are few tips for finding the motivation to exercise:

Get an exercise buddy.

Figure out what form of exercise works for you and go for it. Invest in a stationary bike, gym or dance class. Know that exercise equipment is everywhere--a stairway at work and/or home, water bottles for weight lifting and best of all, your own body. Get on the floor and do some push-ups or sit-ups. Use your furniture to work out your arms and legs while you watch your favorite TV show.

Set realistic goals: Start with a 15-minute daily walk and build to a nice 20-minute jog or bike ride.

Purchase books and visit Internet sites that discuss health and exercise --self-education is key.

Drink plenty of water during the day. Eat healthfully, with more fruits and vegetables, and stick with lean meats, legumes, nuts and seeds. Cook your own meals.

Plan out your weekly schedule ahead of time. Place your schedule on your fridge, and hold yourself (and your buddy) accountable. Cross out what you did for the day. This method will improve your motivation. At the end of that week you will be proud of what you accomplished.

Don't forget exercises that enhance your balance, flexibility and agility. Yoga is a great option here.

Invest in a good trainer, even for few sessions if you cannot afford one on a long-term basis. A trainer can help you establish a set of exercises that fit your needs and goals.

If you have physical limitations, a physical therapist can help you with a set of exercises. Just remember to keep practicing what the therapist taught you after your sessions are done.

If you hate working out at the gym and think the treadmill is a bore, consider fun alternatives such as dancing, hiking, swimming or joining a local sports team. If you still don't know what to do, watch kids at play and imitate them.

--Dr. Maha Alattar