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The Benefits of Physical Exercise for Brain Health

The effect of physical exercise on the body is profound and widespread, it’s a powerful stimulus that causes a cascade of physiological, hormonal, and chemical changes throughout the body. But did you know that it can also have a powerful effect on the brain?

The brain is a highly metabolic and oxygen hungry organ that calls on many systems to support it. When we exercise, we improve our lung function, which not only sends extra oxygen to our muscles, but also oxygenates our brain. Exercise also improves the heart and vascular system, which fuels circulation through all our organs, delivering oxygen and energy-rich carbohydrates to the brain, and carrying away waste products.

The dynamic brain

From a chemical perspective, exercise can create new brain cells and increase the longevity of existing brain cells. This works through the activity of skeletal muscle during exercise releasing a number of different compounds, in particular a protein known as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).

From a hormonal perspective, exercise most famously stimulates the release of dopamine and endorphins. The specific cocktail of hormones have positive effects on mood and concentration. Dopamine has been shown to have a positive effect on our motivation and discipline, increasing our ability to get to those tasks we’ve been avoiding.

How exercise helps

The benefits to the brain are dramatic when it is well supplied with oxygenated blood and fuel, when our neurons and glial cells in our brain are healthy and resistant to damage, and in when it is in a rich hormonal environment conducive to performance. Research studies have found:

  • Higher aerobic fitness is strongly related to higher working memory and attention [1] and exercising while learning increases the effect of learning – in this particular case learning a new language [2].
  • The amount of aerobic exercise performed by adolescents is positively correlated with increased academic performance, behaviour [3] and mental health [4].
  • Hormonal regulation and improved cognitive function are a powerful mood booster and can reduce the risk of depression or reduce the effect of depression in both children and adults [1].

Exercise also combats the natural loss of brain cells – both the amount and the quality – and this can significantly reduce the risk of many age-related brain disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and contributing disorders for dementia [1].

It is never too late to start exercising and improving both your physical and brain health, and research suggests that the more experienced and advanced with exercise you are, the greater the effect each workout will have on your brain health.

References

1. Di Liegro, C. M., Schiera, G., Proia, P., & Di Liegro, I. (2019). Physical activity and brain health. Genes, 10(9), 720.

2. Schmidt-Kassow M., Zink N., Mock J., Thiel C., Vogt L., Abel C., Kaiser J. Treadmill walking during vocabulary encoding improves verbal long-term memory. Behav. Brain Funct. 2014;10:24. doi: 10.1186/1744-9081-10-24.

3. Lees C., Hopkins J. Effect of Aerobic Exercise on Cognition, Academic Achievement, and Psychosocial Function in Children: A Systematic Review of Randomized Control Trials. Prev. Chronic Dis. 2013;10:E174. doi: 10.5888/pcd10.130010.

4. Rodriguez-Ayllon M., Cadenas-Sánchez C., Estévez-López F., Muñoz N.E., Mora-Gonzalez J., Migueles J.H., Molina-García P., Henriksson H., Mena-Molina A., Martínez-Vizcaíno V., et al. Role of Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior in the Mental Health of Preschoolers, Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2019;49:1383–1410. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01099-5.

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