Everyone knows that exercise is good for the body, improving cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance and flexibility. Many people work out to lose or maintain their weight, look better or gain more energy. But less is commonly known about the effects of exercise on the brain.
Although the brain isn’t visible like the biceps, it definitely plays a more important role as command central for your overall functioning. Although we may take the brain for granted, we definitely shouldn’t, as problems in this vital organ dramatically impact life.
One way to help keep your brain healthy is regular physical activity. Bet you didn’t know what research continues to indicate about the many valuable effects of exercise on the brain!
The Effects of Exercise on the Brain
Physically, when you exercise, you increase blood and oxygen flow to the brain, reduce inflammation, and decrease stress hormones – all of which contribute to brain health. Specifically, workouts contribute to:
- Stronger physical structure. Exercise can increase the thickness of the cerebral cortex and enhance the nerve fibers that connect areas of the brain’s gray matter. More white and grey matter means a bigger, stronger brain that functions more efficiently.
- Greater cognitive reserve. Neurogenesis is the production of neurons in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that controls memory and thinking. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, stimulates the growth and proliferation of brain cells, and the more you exercise, the more BDNF you produce. Neurogenesis increases brain volume, and this cognitive reserve may help reduce the effects of dementia.
- Better memory and learning. Neurotrophins are proteins that contribute to the function and survival of nerves, and as exercise boosts neurotrophin production, that improves short- and long-term memory and learning abilities. Also, workouts elevate neurotransmitters in the brain, particularly serotonin and norepinephrine, which improve information processing and mood.
- More flexibility. Studies show that regular sweat sessions also improve neuroplasticity, which is your brain’s ability to form new neural connections as you learn and experience new things throughout life.
- Improved focus and executive function. Exercise helps you concentrate better, as well as organize and interpret information, make decisions faster and act accordingly. You become more adept at multitasking, ignoring distractions and staying on task.
- Heightened creativity. Again, workouts can help boost creativity and imagination, thanks to the stimulation to the hippocampus.
- Enhanced mental health. Research indicates that regular exercise contributes to better mood, helps manage stress and reduces depression and anxiety. Furthermore, workouts can help improve self-confidence and self-image.
- Decreased risk of dementia. Brains of exercisers show more gray and white matter, and less diseased tissue. Plus, greater blood flow to the brain nourishes the brain and helps limit the buildup of plaque that can lead to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other forms of dementia.
- Slower aging. As we get older, the birth of new brain cells slows, and our brain tissue actually gets smaller. Taken together, the effects of exercise on the brain ultimately reduce cognitive decline associated with aging, which ultimately contributes to a better quality of life.
As for what type of exercise is best to reap the most brain benefits, many studies have considered cardiovascular activity – both low intensity and high intensity. Other research has examined strength training and mindful exercise like yoga and Tai Chi. Specific recommendations vary a bit, as some have shown immediate benefits from one single exercise session, while others have measured the effect of exercise on the brain over many years.
The bottom line: maximize the health of your brain with consistent exercise over a lifetime, ideally with a variety of activities that you enjoy.