Working out has been a part of my daily routine for as long as I can remember. From structured gymnastics and dance classes to collegiate cheerleading and Crossfit, I have always had something to keep me in shape. However, as I got older, I realized that working out wasn’t just keeping me in good physical shape; it also had a direct impact on my mental health and productivity. To this day, a good workout always leaves me feeling accomplished, ready to go, and less stressed about upcoming exams or presentations.
A recent research study conducted by the University of Western Australia showed that thirty minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise in the morning improves the cognitive functions associated with better decision-making for the rest of the day. I was never a morning person. I dreaded getting out of bed and the idea of having to interact with people before having coffee or breakfast. When my schedule during my senior year of college left me with morning availability, I decided to enroll in a 9:00 am CrossFit class (because not working out was not an option).
At the time, CrossFit was something very new to me. The CrossFit website states: CrossFit is a lifestyle characterized by safe, effective exercise and sound nutrition. CrossFit can be used to accomplish any goal, from improved health to weight loss to better performance. The program works for everyone—people who are just starting out and people who have trained for years. The first few weeks were rough as we went through basics and I struggled to perfect my technique and do the Rx (recommended) weight. While CrossFit incorporated movements that I have been familiar with (gymnastics, cardio, and weightlifting) the intensity of the workouts was an adjustment for me. The other big adjustment was the time of the workout.
Pre-workout me was slow, groggy and disoriented. Post-workout me was running home to quickly shower, grab breakfast and head to class. I was awake. I was alert. And I was ready to participate during in-class discussions. At first, the change in mood did not make sense to me. But the more I looked into the neuroscience behind working out, the more it made sense.
When one exercises, blood flow to the brain increases. This then sharpens awareness and makes you more alert. According to recent research, both weightlifting and aerobic exercise have shown to improve mental health and raise serotonin and endorphin levels. Additionally, a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) strengthens neurons to ensure their survival and growth. The best way to trigger the production of this protein is exercise. It then promotes cognitive health in areas of memory, learning and depressive illness.
The research above proves that not everyone who signs up for a morning workout may be a morning person; they may just want to reap the benefits of being one! I sure was not, but a morning workout put me on a strict wake-up schedule and instilled structure in my daily routine. My wake up time and my bedtime stayed consistent throughout the semester and I felt more awake and focused as I took on my daily tasks post-workout.