It is common knowledge that regular exercise has salutary effects on cognition and the brain and it has protective effects that reduce disease formation and slow the neurodegenerative effects of aging. In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, perspiration excreted from the body has a high percentage of stress hormones such as cortisol. Tears, saliva, and urine are also loaded with stress hormones which find their exit routes from the body in these pathways. If we don't clear cortisol from the body on a regular basis, it can impair brain regions that help us to cope with everyday stresses.
Exercise and these secretions by themselves, however, are not universally beneficial. Brain function is more likely to be improved when exercise is combined with diets rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and B-vitamins, in people who have regular and supportive social contacts, and - related to the theme of this blog - in those individuals who exercise with their body sense.
Runners who scored higher on tests of embodied self-awareness, for example, used less oxygen, ran faster, and with less build-up of muscle tension. Children who spent more time in structured recreational sports where they were taught to pay attention to their bodies had higher achievement scores in their school work and better social skills. Athletes, from amateur to professional, can improve their performance by learning to pay attention to the body in different phases of an activity - such as during a tennis or golf swing - to reduce muscle strain and allow the body to more efficiently use its metabolic resources.
Movement training for the elderly that emphasizes embodied self-awareness for agility and movement coordination is more likely to improve balance and reduce the risk of falls than training focused only on building muscle strength. One of the best methods for improving balance in the elderly is Tai Chi, most likely because it emphasizes embodied self-awareness of slow, coordinated movements of different body parts in relation to each other and gaining confidence about stance in different postures (McGibbon et al., 2004).
The bottom line is that activating the body sense during exercise enhances its benefits. This occurs because the body sense in turn activates neural networks that link the brain to the body for the purpose of self-regulation. Suppose you are working out on an exercise machine (or running, walking, swimming, playing tennis, or whatever you do) and you are sensing deeply into your body. You should be able to feel your breath, your heart rate, your temperature, movement trajectories, impacts with the environment, as well as muscle tension, pain, and relaxation. Along with this may be emotions related to potency or inadequacy or frustration or pleasure - it doesn't matter so long as you let yourself feel those feelings completely.
Your ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC, see previous blog post) -- which is activated during states of body sense awareness - opens up links between the regulatory-executive areas of your prefrontal and insular cortices, your limbic system which connects to cortical areas of sensation and movement, to glands that secrete stress and relaxation hormones (cortisol and oxytocin), to the immune system, and also to the brain stem autonomic areas that regulate heart rate, digestion, respiration, and whole body energetic states (activity vs. rest).
Simply put, if you are paying attention to your body, this helps you to adjust motor activity, heart rate, blood pressure, digestive function, immune function, and breathing in optimal ways. Your limbic system and brain stem can do some of this regulatory work without your undivided attention. We could not survive without this mostly automatic guidance system. But by fully attending to your body, prefrontal and higher brain areas become involved which can activate more powerful self-regulatory circuits to do their best to maximize the health benefits of exercise.
Put another way, when you pay attention to your body (not thinking about it but feeling it) more or your whole brain and nervous system becomes available to link to more parts of the rest of your body. This whole body activating is probably the origin of the "buzz" or "high" following exercise well done. You may have to put aside your mp3 player and video monitor so you can focus more on yourself. The more you allow time for your body sense, the more that whole body activation gets established, and the easier it becomes to access all those good feelings and health benefits in the future.