The muscles in the brain are no different from the other muscles in the body, you either use it or you lose it. Exercising stimulates the growth of muscle cells in the brain. The benefits of physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, have positive effects on brain functions on multiple fonts, ranging from the molecular to behavioral level. There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active. Big ones include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skill. Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from it’s ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors. Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas are frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
Cognition refers to a set of mental function related to information processing. Key areas of cognition include memory, orientation, maintaining of attention and concentration, visual and spatial processing as well as language and executive functions. Cognitive symptoms refer to information processing problems such as difficulties with abstract thinking and perception or learning and memory problems. Here are some guidelines telling you how much exercise you need to keep a healthy brain.
- Aim to do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate or 90 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity. This should be combined with trying to be physically active during daily tasks. Moderate is defined as a level of intensity at which one start to sweat and needs to breath a bit harder (like fast walking, swimming or bike riding). Vigorous is more intense and involves feeling out of breath (activities could include running, very fast swimming or aerobic exercise in the gym).
- Perform additional resistance training (also known as strength training) at least twice a week. This should also be combined with daily tasks that help improve muscle strength.
- Undertake activities that help improve or maintain balance and reduce the risk of falls, such as walking heel-to-toe or rocking onto heels and toes (ensuring safety by doing exercise near a table or a chair).
- Talk to a general practitioner (or physiotherapist or exercise physiologist) before changing your physical activity routine to ensure that your plan is safe and take your medical history into account.
While these guidelines have been written with brain health in mind, they can contribute to a range of other health benefits, including improved overall wellbeing, better physical health and better management of other health conditions. Getting started and staying motivated can be hard when it comes to exercising, it is advised to select an enjoyable activity, join a class, exercising in a group or with friends, and keeping a diary to track your progress. Whatever exercise and motivators you choose, commit to establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication. After all, they say that exercise is medicine, and that can go on the top of anyone’s reason to work out.
Ways exercise makes your brain better
Here’s how your mental muscles benefit each time you exercise.
- Exercise boosts brain-building hormones:
The chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor(BDNF), stimulates the growth and proliferation of brain cells especially in the hippocampus (brain region responsible for memory). This part of the brain is vulnerable to age-related decline so, the more you exercise the more BDNF you produce.
- Exercise fights anxiety and depression:
Depression slows the brain’s ability to process information, this makes it more difficult for us to concentrate and reach decisions. For serious depression, your doctor may prescribe antidepressants. For milder cases, exercise may help lift your mood. It cranks up the body’s production of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals crucial for a happy mood and it boosts the level of the feel-good chemicals called endorphins.
- It spurs brain growth:
As we get older, the birth of new brain cells slows and our brain tissue shrinks. Exercise may be able to reverse that trend. People aged 60 to 79 showed significant increase in brain volume after six mouths of aerobic fitness training. Cardiovascular fitness that comes with aerobic exercise is associated with fewer age-related changes in the brains of older people. Cardio boost blood flow to the brain, which delivers much-needed oxygen.
- Reduces the effects of stress:
BDNF hormones makes the brains younger but hormones like cortisol helps age the brain. Exercise lowers cortisol levels, helping you to think straight again. It is also believed to help generate new nerve cells in the area of the brain called the dentate gyrus, an area of hippocampus linked to the creation of new memories.
- It improves your brain’s executive function:
Executive function basically means cognitive abilities like being able to focus on complex tasks, to organize, to think abstractly, and to plan for future events. Studies shows that adults aged 55 to 80 who did regular exercise performed four times better on cognitive tests than the once who didn’t work out. Effects were greatest among those who exercised 30 to 45 minutes each session for longer than six months, but substantial benefits were seen in as few as four weeks of exercise.
- It increase sensitivity to insulin:
When you eat, your body turns most of the food into glucose, or blood sugar, the main source of fuel for the body, including the brain. In order for the glucose to enter cells, it must be accompanied by the hormone insulin. Unfortunately, in some people, cells become resistant to insulin. The body then has to pump out more and more of it, and still blood sugar levels rise, often resulting in type 2 diabetes. And even if you don’t develop type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance is bad for your brain. When brain cells are flooded by glucose, it can adversely affect memory and thinking. Regular exercise, however, can reverse insulin resistance. In fact, your insulin sensitivity increase, stabilizing your blood sugar after a single exercise session.
The better your blood sugar control, the more protected you are against age-related cognitive decline.
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