By now we all know that exercise is great for the body. After all, it increases strength, stamina, and longevity; reduces obesity; and reduces the risk of mortality from disease like diabetes and heart disease. It’s also one of the most important treatment aspects for chronic pain patients. New findings are going deeper than that, connecting the mind with the body and elaborating on the benefits of exercise and the brain. For example, can exercise make you smarter?
What do we know about exercise and the brain?
For a long time, the link between exercise and the brain has been explored, but only on a small scale. It is well-documented that the brain releases a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This works to calm and relax you after exercise. Additionally, the longer you exercise and the higher the level of intensity, the more likely that endorphins, or feel-good hormones, will be released. These also produce a feeling of well-being.
What other benefits are there for exercise and the brain?
1. Improves memory and overall brain function
Aerobic exercise like running, dancing, bike riding, fast walking, and swimming appear to increase connections in the temporal lobe, the area of the brain that decreases reaction times and promotes vocabulary acquisition.
Other neuroprotective benefits of exercise on the brain include:
- Better memory storage (also related to an increase in the size of the temporal lobe)
- Release of endorphins in the pituitary gland
- Increased level of brain-derived neurotropic factor (maintains and creates adult nerve cells)
Kids who exercise regularly also get a better night’s sleep, which is closely correlated with better performance in school.
The University of British Columbia found that sweaty, heart-pumping cardiovascular exercise appeared to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. This result was not found through toning and balance exercises alone.
The benefits of cardiovascular exercise on the brain include decreasing inflammation, fighting insulin resistance, and promoting the release of growth factors in the brain. These growth factors help to build more blood vessels and keep existing brain cells strong and healthy.
Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School, pointed out that this can occur at any age:
“Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions.”
Didn’t exercise enough in your youth? No matter. A research article in the open access journal PLOS Biology has found that long-term aerobic activity started in middle age can help protect your brain from age-related deterioration. The efforts of exercise and the brain health last a lifetime.
Gareth Howell, Ileana Soto and their colleagues at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine gave mice a running wheel at 12 months of age (the equivalent of middle age) and then examined their brains at 18 months. Eighteen months in mice is an equivalent human age of about 60. And, this is when Alzheimer’s and other dementia conditions begin to appear.
Each mouse ran approximately two miles a night, and the changes were profound. Older mice spontaneously acted in the way that younger mice would. It seems that regular, long-term aerobic exercise increases the strength of the blood-brain barrier. Age-related deficits in this barrier have been identified as key causes of dementia. Aerobic exercise appears to strengthen this barrier and keep the brain’s structures young and healthy.
Dr. Howell, one of the study’s authors, elaborated on the benefits of exercise on the brain, even for those who are unable to exercise, noting:
“In this day and age, with so many distractions and conveniences, it is easy to fall into a lifestyle that does not include enough exercise. With an aging population, I hope our study helps in encouraging a healthy lifestyle that includes exercise. For those that are unfortunately unable to exercise, our study provides insight into a possible mechanism by which exercise may benefit the aging brain and may one day lead to improved treatments for age-related cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.”
4. Prevents mental disorders
A study conducted by researchers from Faculty of Sciences for Physical Activity (INEF) and Sport at Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (UPM) in collaboration with the European University (UEM) found that adults in Spain who regularly participated in physical activity had better mental health than those who did not.
The study looked at people aged 15 to 74, using version two of the Global Physical Activity Questionnaire. This assesses frequency, intensity, and duration of participants’ physical activity. The General Health Questionnaire was then used to evaluate mental health. These two tools in combination were able to ascertain mental disorders and psychological morbidity.
Researchers found that the risk of mental health disorders was reduced by between 54 and 56% among those participants who were deemed “sufficiently active.” The study authors believe that although exactly how this connection is made is still unclear, the connection itself is clear enough to affect recommendations for treatment of mental health disorders.
5. Makes your brain more agile
Researchers in Finland, a country with one of the best school systems in the world, have begun to examine the connection between physical activity, academic achievement, and the way these two are linked. The project is called Active, Fit, and Smart (AFIS), and its goal is to:
“…explore how physical activity and fitness are linked to academic achievement, cognitive functions, brain properties and executive functions at different ages, both in children and adults.”
Tuija Tammelin heads the project through Finland’s research program The Future of Learning Knowledge and Skills. There are three subprojects in this study. The first subproject looks at how physical fitness affects learning, cognition, and academic achievement at all stages of a person’s life. It will be longer in scope, using cohort studies to examine the connections, either positive or negative.
The second subproject will look at how the structural integrity and function of the brain is affected by either lifelong physical activity or inactivity. The final project will use animal models for a physical examination of the brain. This will look at both intrinsic (already existing) and acquired levels of fitness to see what the physical structures are.
Researchers hope that examining large data sets on multiple levels in an interdisciplinary manner will yield conclusive information on physical activity’s effect on memory, attention, information processing, and problem solving. Nineteen teams will look at 11 different projects between 2014 and 2017. These projects should provide baseline data on how physical activity affects the brain. Educators, researchers, parents, and anyone else who works with learners of any age should benefit from these research findings.
How to get started with exercise
The best news regarding the benefits of exercise on the brain is that it is never too late to start. The majority of research points to aerobic exercise as the best way to exercise for the brain. In other words, while yoga and other meditative types of exercise can boost mindfulness and keep you calm, it may not be the best way to improve brain health. Mix in some cardiovascular workouts to increase brain strength.
A few good guidelines for finding exercises that benefit the brain include:
- Aim to get sweaty with an elevated heart rate during your workout, no matter what you choose.
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes daily.
- Timing is everything. If you exercise before work you may feel more relaxed and better able to handle the stresses of the day.
- If you find yourself getting bored with repetitive workouts like running or biking, try some circuit training at the gym. This moves you quickly through weight-bearing exercises that get you sweaty but don’t give you time to lose interest.
- Never underestimate the power of jumping jacks. If you find yourself feeling fuzzy-brained or mentally exhausted, stand up and do enough jumping jacks to get your heart moving. You may find this brief aerobic exercise offers enough of a mental and physical boost to get you through the day. This can be especially helpful between 2 and 4 pm, when most people experience a dip in energy.
The benefits of exercise on the brain are clear. Do you exercise your body to help your brain?