I am sure you are aware exercise is beneficial for your general health. It can increase energy levels, boost mood and promote weight loss. Regular physical activity is good for your muscles, bones, heart, and skin. But, did you know exercise is also good for your brain?
It’s true! Exercise promotes healthy brain function and prevents age-related cognitive decline. Research shows regular exercise improves memory, attention, processing speed, and other higher-level mental functions. There is even a correlation between exercise and a reduced risk of developing dementia later in life. Emerging evidence shows exercise assists with recovery from a stroke and is capable of alleviating symptoms associated with other neurologic disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease. Before I can explain how exercise produces positive changes in brain function, let’s go over the basics.
There are about 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells, in the human brain. These neurons are responsible for communication to other nerve cells, muscles, and gland cells within the entire body through the transmission of electrical impulses. Previously, most scientists thought that established neural pathways were unchanging. However, with more evidence, scientists now theorize neuron communications frequently change, as you learn and age, to better suit your individual needs. There you have it: an old dog can learn a new trick!
This ability of the brain to reconfigure, both structurally and functionally, is known as neuroplasticity. Neuroplastic changes to your mind are induced from life experiences, learning, practicing a skill, and (you guessed it) exercise!
Exercise increases cerebral blood flow and increases the levels of “good chemicals” in the brain to promote the growth of new neurons as well as new neural pathways. These physiological responses to exercise result in improved mental performance. More specifically, physical exercise is found to have positive effects on executive control processes such as planning, scheduling, and multitasking. Ability to learn and memory retention are also enhanced with exercise. Furthermore, physically active individuals are shown to have a higher brain volume when compared to sedentary individuals.
While the majority of research supports regular physical exercise for improved cognition, there is no conclusion on the ideal type or amount of exercise for optimal results. Therefore, choose the activity you enjoy the most! Do aerobics, lift weights, play your favorite sport, or attend your favorite exercise class; whatever gives you a good workout! Current literature suggests exercising in one hour sessions, two-three times per week, for at least 50 minutes to 2 hours to strengthen your brain function.