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How Exercise Improves Brain Function

There are many good reasons to be physically active. The most important ones include reducing the risks of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. Most people engage in physical exercise to lose weight, lower their blood pressure, and prevent depression. Some even exercise in order to get stronger or to look better.

Most times, people overlook the less obvious benefits of physical exercise to their brain functions. Studies have shown that when you exercise, you not only strengthen the skeletal muscles but also improve your brain’s functions. Exercise improves and protects the brain, memory and learning ability.

In one of the studies done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found out that regular aerobic exercise, which gets the heart and sweat glands pumping, boost the size of the hippocampus – the part of the brain that is involved in verbal memory and learning.

Also, Daniel Wolpert, a neuroscientist, who is well-versed in the function and complexities of the brain, in his TED Talk, “The Real Reason for Brains”, explained that the brain’s primary purpose is to control movements. He opined that movement is what allows us to perform all other activities and functions that we need to thrive and survive. In his statement, he said:

“We have a brain for one reason and one reason only — and that is to produce adaptable and complex movements.” – Daniel Wolpert, Neuroscientist, TED Talk, 2011.

Therefore, if the brain primary function is to control movement, then, there is a need for us to do more exercise in order to keep the brain in perfect working condition.

Exercise and the brain

Through both direct and indirect means, exercise helps the brain memory and thought functions. The benefits of exercise come directly from its capacity to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors in the brain – the growth factors are chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, it reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas often cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.

How Does Exercise Affect Brain Health?

Boost Your Memory

In a study published in the neuropsychology journal, Perceptual and Motor Skills, it was revealed that women performed 20 percent better on memory tests after running on a treadmill than they did before the exercise. The study also shows that their problem-solving abilities also increased by 20 percent.

The intensity of your exercise makes a difference too. A study published in the scientific journal, Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, found that people learnt vocabulary words faster after intense exercise than after low-intensity task. Those who engage in the more demanding exercise had an increase in their brains’ levels of BDNF, dopamine, and epinephrine afterward. So the more you challenge the body, the more your brain benefits.

Mood

Depression causes real memory problems, it slows the brain’s ability to process information fast and also makes it more difficult for us to concentrate and reach decisions. It has been proven that exercise can help to lift the mood for mild cases of depression.

It cranks up the production of serotonin and dopamine which are the brain chemicals in a happy mood.  Exercise produces the same effects as antidepressants drugs. It also boosts the level of endorphins – the feel-good chemical.

While you may despise the thought of working out in the gym, you will feel much better once it is done, not just because of the feeling of accomplishment, but because of the alterations in the brain chemicals.

It improves brain executive function

By executive function we mean the cognitive abilities that let us focus on complex tasks, to organize, to think abstractly, and to plan for future activities. It also includes the working memory.  When researchers set out to examine the effects of exercise on executive function, they looked at 18 well-designed studies and found that adults aged between 55 to 80 years who did regular exercise performed four times better on cognitive tests than the control groups who did not work out. The effects were greatest among the group who exercised 30 to 45 minutes longer.

Exercise is especially important for growing children because it has both physiological and developmental impact on children’s brains as they grow. Increased physical exercise results in changes to neurotransmitters and the central nervous system as well as increased circulation to the brain.

John Ratey, the author of “A User’s Guide to the Brain”, calls exercise ‘Miracle-Gro for the brain’ because of its role in stimulating nerve growth factors. All of these help in enhancing the learning ability and it improves the executive function of the brain.

It reduces the effect of stress

Sluggishness, scattered thinking, and forgetfulness are often caused by stress. Exercise helps the body to reduce the level of cortisone, thereby, helping you to think straight again. It is also believed to aid in the generation of new nerve cells in the dentate gyrus – an area of the hippocampus linked to the creation of new memories. The brain cells are depleted here during times of stress.

Where do you start from?

You don’t have to worry about researching the types of exercises for increasing your brain power – It is not that complicated. Any exercise that is good for the heart is also good for the brain. Therefore, cardiovascular and aerobic workouts are bound to do the trick.

If you are new to exercise, start with something simple like walking or swimming and the results would be amazing!

If you are fairly fit or you want to take it up a notch, circuits or HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) are a good choice, as they raise your heart rate quickly and use varied exercises to keep you stimulated.

For a combination of physical and mental exercise, a martial art such as Jiu Jitsu is perfect, since it requires intricate techniques and strategies rather than simply strength or power.

As with most things, everything should be done in moderation.

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