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September 16, 2015

Mike Sullivan, M.A., LMHC
Family & Alumni Services Director

mikebikeselfie (1)With the race approaching in less than a month, Ironman training is in full swing!  Training has ramped up to 20+ hours per week, including relentless swimming drills, 100+ mile bike rides on the Kona coast, and jungle runs. This has been an epic “El Nino” summer for training, with hurricanes and tropical storms. Needless to say, I’ve experienced the wonders of nature – cycling in hellacious headwinds and running in knee deep water through flash floods. Through it all,  I’m still going strong and feeling better than ever about competing in the Kona Ironman World Championships.

While I’ve always been a big fan of getting active, Ironman has catalyzed more reflection on the psychological and physical benefits of exercise. During those 6+ hour bike rides in the sweltering Kona heat, I realized that I wanted to dig into the biochemical changes occurring on a molecular level.  The literature suggests that moderation is key (which is tough for an Ironman to stomach), but it’s important that we allow our bodies time to rest and recover, especially when pursuing extreme endurance events.  Regardless of the intensity of your exercise, movement is critical and even an hour of exercise a day has incredible benefits.

Neuroscientists are exploring the benefits of exercise in great detail- mapping out the changes which occur in our brains.   Scientists are validating much of what people experience on an intuitive level – that exercise makes you feel better.  After an hour of aerobic exercise, many people will report feeling happier, less stressed, with increases in attention span, and a more positive sense of self.  We can all relate to this on a phenomenological level and it is great that science is providing more insight into the mechanisms responsible for such feelings.

How it works:

  • On a neurological level, exercise helps with brain plasticity, ie, the brain’s capacity to regenerate and adapt.  Neural pathways are responsible for sending all the signals throughout the nervous system.  Healthy, adaptable neural pathways are critical for processing information (memory/cognition) and emotional regulation.
  • Our bodies naturally produce cortisol, the main “stress hormone.”  Too much cortisol is a bad thing.  A little cortisol is a good thing, as it sharpens focus and signals the brain to function more effectively.  Aerobic exercise creates a buffer against excessive cortisol, keeping our stress levels more balanced.  
  • Aerobic exercise is responsible for the production and secretion of endorphins which have an antidepressant effect, thus elevating mood and self esteem.

Despite the science and the intimidating vocabulary associated with the brain, we all have experienced the benefits of exercise on an experiential level.  Get out and move your body.  You will feel better. I will need to remember this as I persevere through a twelve hour Ironman!

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