Most people know that regular exercise can reduce fat, increase muscle mass, improve sleep quality, and lessen the likelihood of illness and chronic disease. However, the effects of exercise on the body are not only physical. One of the most overlooked benefits of regular exercise is physical activity’s effect on the brain. Some neuroscientists and experts believe regular workouts help determine brain health and how well we use our cognitive abilities daily.
What Happens To The Brain When We Exercise?
Although highly complex, the brain is easily shaped and molded like plastic. Every activity, experience, and stimulus can mold, reshape, and rewire the brain. Exercise isn’t any different. When we move our bodies, blood flow increases, making us feel more positive. But research shows that four key activities happen in the brain when we exercise.
- Molecular and cellular changes. These changes determine how the brain grows. When we exercise, the organ’s brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) increase. The BDNF is a protein that works as a fertilizer, helping the brain improve our ability to learn and memorize new things. IGF-1 works with BDNF to enhance the learning process. VEGF is a protein that stimulates the formation of blood vessels so new brain cells can continue to grow. These cellular and molecular changes ensure that the brain is healthy and functions well.
- Neurotransmitter changes. When we exercise, the brain releases chemical messengers which send messages from one brain cell to another. This cellular communication process helps make sure our bodies function correctly. Serotonin boosts our cognitive functioning, improves our learning ability, and enhances our memory. Dopamine encourages us to repeat nourishing and pleasurable experiences. Norepinephrine works with adrenaline to keep blood pumping from the heart. Physical activity enables these neurotransmitters to work together to decrease stress, regulate our mood, improve our ability to learn, and help us concentrate.
- Functional and structural changes. Exercise can also affect the form and structure of the brain. When we move our bodies, gray matter volume in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus increases. The brain areas help us manage stress, regulate emotions, reason, make plans, and store memories.
- Socio-emotional changes. Physical activity decreases the amount of stress and anxiety the brain has to deal with, improving our moods and sleep quality. The brain gets a much-needed break from worrying when we move our bodies.
Research also proves that exercise is good for the brain.
Proof That Exercise Is Good For The Brain
Data from a 2019 study of 454 elderly adults revealed that people who moved more scored best on memory and thinking tests. Additionally, every increase in physical activity by one standard deviation resulted in a 31% lower risk of dementia.
Another study surveyed 160 people with mild cognitive impairment. The participants were encouraged to do aerobic exercise three times a week for 45 minutes per session, follow the heart-healthy DASH diet, combine the two options, or receive health education. During the six months that the study took place, those who solely followed the DASH diet showed no improvement in executive functioning assessments. The assessment scores of individuals who received health education worsened. On the other hand, the assessment scores of those who exercised had improved and individuals who combined exercise with the DASH diet saw the most improvement.
A 2020 UT Southwestern Medical Center study confirmed that exercise boosts blood flow into brain regions that regulate memory. The study also showed that increased blood flow could help older people with memory issues.
How Does Exercise Improve Brain Health?
There are many ways exercise helps improve cognitive function and brain health. Aerobic exercises increase the heart rate, allowing more blood flow and oxygen into the brain. The increased oxygen levels stimulate neurogenesis, the production of neurons in parts of the brain responsible for memory and thinking. Neurogenesis increases brain volume, which helps combat the effects of dementia.
High-intensity exercises help the brain produce more neurotrophic factors, proteins that promote neuron survival and protect them from death. Increased neurotrophins lead to more remarkable brain plasticity, which helps improve learning and memory. Additionally, the new neurons generated and protected by neurotrophins help increase brain structure volume, enhancing cognition and enhancing our general well-being.
Physical fitness also helps improve brain health by:
- Lowering the number of stress hormones in the brain
- Reducing inflammation
- Promoting cardiovascular health
Best Exercises For Improving Brain Health
Even though all forms of exercise can help improve the brain, some of the most beneficial physical fitness activities for improved cognitive functioning include:
- Aerobic exercise. These exercises boost blood flow to the brain and increase the size of the hippocampus, which regulates memory and learning. Examples of aerobic exercise include swimming, cycling, walking, rowing, running, jumping rope, and using an elliptical trainer.
- Weight training. Strength training exercises help prevent the hippocampus from shrinking, which helps preserve good memory. Examples of weight and strength training exercises include squats, bench presses, lunges, plank, pull-ups, leg presses, and burpees.
- Yoga. Yoga helps improve verbal and visual-spatial memory. Practicing unfamiliar movements and learning new skills also help create new neural pathways.
- Tai chi. This ancient and reflective practice improves the activity in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking. Research also shows that tai chi can help enhance reasoning, problem-solving skills, and memory.
- Dancing. Regular dancing can reduce the risk of dementia by 76%. Studies show that dancing can help improve the cognitive function of dementia patients.
Exercise Your Way To Optimal Brain Health
Age, stress, mental health challenges, and addiction can negatively affect the brain, but it’s encouraging to know that we can take an active role in preserving our brain health as we age. By committing to regular exercise, we can lower our risk of developing debilitating diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. If you’re looking for a way to improve your brain health, consider starting a regular exercise routine. Engaging in regular physical fitness activity is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall wellness and quality of life. Contact us today to learn more.
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