Physical Exercise For Brain Health
Healthy body, healthy mind. Regular physical exercise is not only important for your body’s health, it also helps your brain stay sharp. It can help boost brain function, reduce stress, improve memory, improve learning and mental performance, and prevent age-related neurodegenerative diseases. Exercise improves cognition and promotes a process known as neurogenesis, which is your brain’s ability to adapt and grow new brain cells, regardless of age. Physically active older people seem to be able to hold off memory loss, but only if they start exercising before symptoms occur.
There are many physical benefits that come with exercise, including weight maintenance, stronger muscles, lower blood pressure, preventing depression, lower odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, or just helping you look better. But exercise also nourishes the body mentally and changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.
Scientists have been linking physical exercise to brain health for many years. Compelling evidence shows that regular aerobic exercise, more than resistance training or balance and muscle toning exercises, helps build a brain that resists shrinkage and increases cognitive abilities.
- Clinton Wright at the University of Miami in Florida and his colleagues followed 876 people, starting at an average age of 71, for five years. At the end of a five-year period, the brains of non-exercisers look 10 years older than those who did moderate physical exercise.
- Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. These results were published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.
- According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes helps improve information processing and memory functions.
Physical exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety
Physical activity helps boost blood flow throughout the body, including the brain. Physical exercise stimulates the brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory – the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex. Aerobic training has been found to increase connectivity in the temporal lobe in a year, in a group of college-aged young adults, by simply walking. While a more vigorous intensity aerobic exercise, like running for 30 minutes, led to faster reaction times and vocabulary learning. Women who were aged 65 and over were less likely to develop cognitive decline if they were physically active. Recent research from UCLA demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain, making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. “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,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
Aerobic exercise increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also aids the body’s release of a vast array of hormones, all of which participate in aiding and providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. This benefits the brain in ways from improving learning and mental performance to preventing dementia, Alzheimer’s, and brain aging. This is critical because researchers say one new case of dementia is detected every four seconds globally. They estimate that by the year 2050, more than 115 million people will have dementia worldwide.
From a behavioral perspective, the same antidepressant-like effects associated with “runner’s high” is associated with a drop in stress hormones. A study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Indirectly, physical exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults get at least two and a half hours of moderate cardio and two days of muscle strengthening every week. Regardless of age or fitness level, research has shown regular exercise does yield mental health benefits.
So, start exercising!