The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise

A wave of research papers, studies, hypotheses, and articles from universities and laboratories have explored the link between exercise and mental fitness. It is coming to light that exercise affects the brain in many ways. The age-old adage that “the brain is a muscle” isn’t exactly true, but exercising other muscles of the body seems to have a positive impact on the health of our brains. These benefits range from an increase in neuronal connections to improvements in mood. In this blog, we will discuss the impact physical exercise has on the brain, in particular the prefrontal cortex and a part of the brain inside the temporal lobe called the hippocampus.

Effects of exercise on our brain:

The following are examples of the positive effect that physical exercise has on our brain:

1. Exercise helps build more brain cells: Until 1999 it was believed that the adult brain was not capable of producing new brain cells via a process called neurogenesis and that the human brain was fully formed at birth. However, new research shows that exercise has immediate effects on the growth of our brain cells—a single workout increases neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. According to a study by the Salk Institute, exercise stimulates the production of a protein called the Noggin which in turn stimulates the production of stem cells and neurogenesis.

2. Exercise boosts memory: Research shows that an increase in cardiovascular functions has long-lasting effects because of changes in the brain's anatomy, physiology, and function. With physical exercise, new brain cells are formed in the hippocampus. Since the hippocampus plays a major role in learning and memory, an increase in its volume improves long term memory.

3. Exercise improves attention and reaction time: Exercise is closely linked to increased activity in the prefrontal cortex. With this comes improved attention function that is dependent on the prefrontal cortex. In addition to this, moderate cardiovascular exercise improves the ability to shift as well as focus attention for at least two hours after a workout. There is also an improvement in reaction time—a useful ally in many physical activities and daily life.

4. Exercise improves mental health: Exercise has long-lasting increases in good mood neurotransmitters. According to a study in The Journal of Neuroscience, moderate exercise can increase the levels of two neurotransmitters, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which can increase the capacity to respond to mental challenges. Another example of exercise improving mental health is the “runner’s high”, a feeling of happiness that often follows exercise. Researchers have stated that exercise seems to be as effective in treating depressive symptoms as anti-depressants and psychological treatments.

5. Exercise fights age-related cognitive decline and other diseases: Exercise has protective effects on the brain. The more you exercise, the bigger your prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus become. These two areas are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline with aging. Thus, researchers say that regular exercise can help prevent progressive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

6. Exercise helps boost creativity: Psychologists have provided empirical support to the notion that activities such as walking improve creative thinking. A 2014 Stanford University paper demonstrated that walking in open areas, on the treadmill, or practically anywhere boosted creative thinking.

7. Exercise beats stress in the long-term: It is known that when we are stressed our brain produces a “fight or flight” stress hormone called cortisol. While cortisol is very helpful when our body needs it during situations of emergency, elevated cortisol levels in our body for sustained periods of time can create problems like hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. Exercise helps to beat stress in the long-term as it is considered “controlled stress”, which improves the brain’s stress response and helps us regulate stress at appropriate times.

8. Exercise improves circulation: It is observed that active people have more acetylcholine receptors—receptors found at the junction of synapse between muscle and nerve cells—than inactive people. Cardiovascular exercise increases the heart rate, helping deliver more oxygen and glucose to the brain. This stimulates the brain’s synapses by preserving the number of acetylcholine receptors.

How much exercise is required for these brain-boosting benefits?

One needs to exercise 3-4 times a week with a minimum of 30 minutes per exercise session. The regimen should preferably comprise aerobic or cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart rate up.

Bringing exercise into your daily routine will not only give you a happier and more protective life today but protect your brain from incurable diseases and help create life-changing benefits. For information on brain health-related conditions and treatments, reach out to our specialists at the Brain and Spine Institute at Sagar Hospitals.

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