It’s no secret that exercise can do wonders for our health. Exercise is good for losing weight, preventing disease, improving heart health and boosting well-being. Also, let’s be honest – if you’re a workout enthusiast, you know how great exercise is.
There is plenty of research to back up these claims. Yet the benefits of exercise go beyond the physiological effects. Unsurprisingly, this also impacts our neurobiology. As a 24-hour machine, the brain bears the brunt of our workouts (even if we don’t realize it). So how does exercise affect the brain?
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How exercise affects the brain
Exercise, especially aerobic activity, affects the brain in many ways. Not only does exercise help you fight disease, improve your mood and provide a burst of energy, but it acts on direct mechanisms in our neural system to give us health and well-being throughout life. . While the list of benefits is exhaustive, here are some of the most notable ways exercise affects the brain — don’t be surprised at how interconnected they are.
Exercise improves brain plasticity
According to researchers, aerobic exercise and strength training help the brain become more flexible, improve neuroplasticity. Why is this important? Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change or adapt when we learn or participate in something new. Brain plasticity directly affects essential cognitive functions such as memory and learning.
For example, when you’re learning another language or traveling to an unfamiliar destination, how you take in new data depends on the “plasticity” of your brain, which is generally more adaptable the younger you are. A baby’s developing brain is a perfect example of neuroplasticity.
Exercise reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia
If you want to organically sharpen your cognition and prevent dementia, get ready to lace up your shoes. This is because aerobic exercise puts the breaks on the shrinkage of the hippocampus.
“Exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors,” says a study in Trends in Neuroscience. BDNFs are proteins responsible for brain plasticity and supporting memory and learning. This process is important for older people because it slows cognitive decline due to aging – reduce the risk of dementia.
Additionally, aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which, on the other hand, can prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Through exercise, a person increases their heart rate, improves oxygenation to the brain, and maximizes oxygen utilization in brain tissue. This in itself improves mental health.
Exercise boosts memory
Another way exercise affects the brain is by helping our memory function. In clinical studies, a group of researchers have found that physical exercise leads to structural changes in the brain, including “an increase in the volume of gray matter in the frontal and hippocampal regions”. This means that the exercises support the growth of brain cells in the hippocampus region, which controls our memory and thinking.
Evidence shows that these changes improve our cognitive functions, including memory, attention, and information processing (also called executive control processes). This mechanism of brain function also aligns with a decrease in cognitive decline.
Exercise eases symptoms of anxiety and depression
If you are looking for natural alternatives to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression, exercise is the way to go. Besides decreased insulin resistance and inflammation in the brainexercise causes the delivery of growth chemicals that support new blood vessels and keep brain cells healthy, thereby slowing damaged ones.
These results are consistent with an article on the antidepressant effect of running in the Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. In the study, scientists suggested that impeding cell growth in the hippocampus could be one of the main causes of depression.
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But that’s not all. Another study shows that changes in brain structure increase serotonin, beta-endorphins and other neurotransmitters. Beta-endorphins are hormones responsible for pain and stress management. Serotonin is the natural brain chemical that regulates our mood, among other functions – that happy feeling, perhaps euphoria, comes from serotonin. Researchers see a link between low levels of this chemical and depression. Like serotonin, releasing endorphins helps relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Does exercise intensity affect the brain?
Whether you prefer light, moderate or very intense workouts, the benefits of physical activity for overall health are undeniable. Of course, your doctor will be the first to tell. Yet research shows that moderate-to-high intensity exercise is the winner when it comes to lasting impact on the brain. So aerobic exercise — the kind that gets your heart pumping and sweaty — seems to offer greater benefits. A body of research has shown that memory performance and cognitive flexibility improve with moderate-intensity exercise, while high-intensity exercise boosts peripheral BDNF and boosts cognitive function. In addition, the cognitive benefits were substantial in seniors.
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However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore other types of exercises. On the contrary, you can still hack a multitude of benefits of bodybuilding and strength training. But how long should you exercise?
Experts recommend 2 to 2.5 hours of moderate activity per week – about 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day – or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (just over an hour). Brisk walking, ballroom dancing, water aerobics, gardening, and bicycling are some examples of moderate-intensity exercise. If you like to sweat, jogging, running, biking, jumping rope, laps, and martial arts are great options for high-intensity activities.
The choice is yours. Although the literature is full of evidence on how exercise affects the brain, there is no clear answer on which activity is best. So the big takeaway here is to get moving. No doubt your brain will thank you.