Benefits of exercise on the brain: How does exercise help?

 

You’ve probably heard before how the brain is “like a muscle” and just like our other muscles, we need to exercise it regularly. But how can we do that? We can’t flex our brain like we flex our muscles. But exercising the body’s muscles can help your brain in so many different ways. Read below to find out more about the benefits of exercise on the brain!

Benefits of exercise on the brain

Benefits of exercise on the brain

What exercise does to the brain

Just like exercise promotes the growth of new muscle cells, exercise can help the growth of neurons! When we exercise our muscles, a protein called FNDC5 is released from the muscles. This triggers another protein in the brain, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF for short. This protein helps the brain nourish new synapses and connections, preserve exisiting connections, and plays a critical  role in learning and memory. The hormones released during exercise also contributes  to the growth of more neural connections. These hormones also work to wash away some of the detrimental effects of stress.

Exercise causes your heart to pump more blood to all areas of the body, but most importantly- the brain. This allows the brain to get the oxygen and nutrients it needs. With more resources, the brain can function much more efficiently. This means that you might find yourself thinking clearer, concentrating better, and retaining more information. This all sounds like awesome news, but remember that the brain has limits too. Studies have found that high intensity workouts actually decrease the amount of oxygen heading to the brain. This is because more oxygen is diverted to your muscles. The drop of oxygen in the brain can hinder muscle coordination, which leads to muscle fatigue.

The brain has a “use it or lose it” policy (neuroplasticity). This means that passive activities that don’t really challenge the brain weakens the connections we already have. Think about it this way: someone who knows how to read has neural pathways that doesn’t exist in the brain of someone who can’t read. Using those pathways is what allows a person to read, but not using those pathways for a long period of time can lead to the decline in that skill. With that being said, the brain loves to learn new things. But the longer the brain is passive, the more likely it is to atrophy. So new exercises and activities that keeps the brain learning will also contribute to better brain function.

Benefits of exercise on the brain

Memory

The hippocampus (Know your brain!), the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory, changes when we exercise. The surge in hormones and the protein BDNF allows new neural connections to grow in this area, causing it to grow larger. This means that exercise can really help to improve memory. Studies have shown that people who exercise have greater density in the prefrontal and medial temporal cortices, which are responsible in part for thinking and memory. It has also been shown in previous studies that exercise can help memory formation. For example, it would be easier to remember words in a foreign language after you’ve exercised than if you didn’t exercise at all.

Mental Health

Ever heard of the “runner’s high”? Well it’s a real thing! Endorphins are the body’s own pain killers, causing you to feel happy after intense exercise. The body also releases a chemical called endocannabinoid, which causes feelings of calmness after challenging exercise. There are so many things that exercise does for mental health, but here are a few:

  • reduce anxiety, depression and negative mood
  • boost self esteem
  • boost cognitive function
  • alleviate social withdrawal
  • improve sleep
  • reduce stress

One exercise that really helps it yoga. Yoga can help you lower levels of anxiety and bring your body out of the “fight or flight” stage that stress can cause. This is because it focuses on deliberate breathing and movement that tunes into the body’s relaxation response.

Concentration

In a study conducted on school children, researchers found that exercise can help to improve executive control. This means that the children were better at filtering out distractions, staying focused, multitasking, and manipulating information in their minds than those who did no exercise regularly. This works so well that it is actually used as a treatment for ADHD, as an alternative or supplement to medications. Exercise benefits your concentration because of the new neural connections. The more you’re using these connections, the stronger the connections get. But achieving this cognitive improvement doesn’t have to be too complicated of a task. Just by doing exercises that target coordination skills, you can improve your concentration. For example, playing catch or tennis can improve coordination.

Choosing the right exercise

Whatever you do, just don’t stay still. There is no specific exercise that is the magic key to having a healthy brain. Just choose an exercise that you enjoy and stick to it, your brain will thank you for it! If you’re looking for some exercise inspiration, then check out some tips below:

  • It’s recommended to exercise for at least half an hour for about 5 days a week. If that seem’s like too much, then work your way up! Start with a few minutes a day, whether it’s just taking stairs or walking to work. Then increase the time, so that you can eventually reach your goal.

  • Anything can be exercise if you put enough work into it! Doing household chores such as intense mopping, or vacuuming can get your heart pumping and still bring the same effects.

  • If you feel like you won’t be able to keep a consistent exercise schedule by yourself, then try it with a friend. Studies have also shown that working out with friends can increase the amount of feel-good chemicals released during exercise.

  • Everything is great in moderation! Be careful not to work yourself out too hard. Intense exercise can start to reverse some of the benefits that you get from light to moderate exercise. Just be sure to pace yourself, and know your body’s limits.

 

Did we leave you with any questions? Please comment below! 🙂

Jessica is a student studying neuroscience and psychology. She is fascinated with all things people, from the way our brains work to how we think. She is always looking for new things to learn, and is eager to help others be inspired.