FullSizeRenderI just strengthened my brain, improved my mood, reduced stress and boosted my creativity and cognitive abilities, all without taking drugs or supplements. I did this by running for 30 minutes and then stretching under this lacy-looking tree while letting myself daydream.

Although my tolerance for long distance has diminished, I still do two or three 30 minute runs a week. Given my busy schedule, I’d much rather run for just 20 minutes, but it takes half an hour of aerobic exercise for levels of endorphins to peak. It’s worth it to me to do the extra 10 minutes because the benefits of endorphins are so great. Endorphins are our bodies natural opiates – the “feel good” chemicals that are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Among other things, they reduce pain and stress and improve mood. Unlike drugs that do the same, e.g, stimulants, narcotics and antidepressants, these endogenous (produced within the body) chemicals have no negative side effects and won’t cost you any money – they just require a little grit (which has its own positive effects), and time.

The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that “plays a role in the regulation of complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning” (Merriam-Webster) shrinks as we age, which can cause myriad problems. Aerobic exercise has been shown to help thicken the the prefrontal cortex (along with the hippocampus), thus counteracting some of the negative effects of aging on the brain. Activities that have both mental and physical demands, like hip-hop or ballroom dancing, appear to offer the most benefit in terms of brain function.

According to current research, my 10 or so minutes of active daydreaming probably benefitted my brain as well; studies are showing that daydreaming can increase creativity. In his book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, Jonah Lehrer says, “I think about Jonathan Schooler, who has pioneered the study of daydreaming and mind wandering. He’s shown that people who daydream score higher on creativity tests.” In fact, it was while stretching and letting my my wander that I came up with the idea for this blog, as well as ideas for the Yoga classes I’m teaching this evening.

If I were going to be completely honest, I would tell you that after seeing my 6:00 client this morning, I didn’t really want to run and was having an easy time finding all kinds of excuses for not going (including hunger pangs). However, once I was under that pretty canopy of tree, out of breath and dripping sweat, I was really glad I’d done it. Not only did that 30 minutes of cardio helped me shake off the sleepiness that sometime accompanies my 4:15 wake-up time, it also
diminished my hunger, enlivened my brain and left my senses feeling palpably alive. So, the next time you’re tempted to choose NOT exercising, give yourself instead the gift of improving your life on several levels by summoning up the grit to take yourself out for a fast walk, a run-walk combo or a full on run. I guarantee that 30 minutes of a cardiovascular workout will leave you feeling better and brighter than just about any other choice you could have made.