What does exercise do for your brain? A lot, it turns out. You’re already aware of the physical benefits of exercising, but you’ll be happy to know that you’re also improving your brain health. Do you enjoy going for a walk, run, bike ride, swim or to the gym regularly? Or perhaps you love dancing, yoga or team sports such as soccer or volleyball. We know that these and other forms of exercise can make us feel better, but do they have any biological effects? Have you ever wondered, What does exercise do for your brain?
It turns out that exercise can benefit our brain health greatly, at the cellular level. Aiding brain regeneration, energy production, inflammation control and stress relief, the “meathead jock” stereotype doesn’t hold weight here. Why? Because it turns out, exercising regularly could actually make you smarter and improve cognitive function. So what exactly does exercise do for your brain, and what health conditions could it help prevent?
Exercise and Brain Regeneration
Until recently, we thought brain regeneration was impossible. The old beliefs stated that you were born with all of the neurons you’d ever have, and the only way was downhill. It’s such a relief to know that we not only can grow new neurons but also that some methods of doing so are simple and accessible. After all, it’s a natural process that happens unaided at a low level in healthy circumstances.
Studies show that aerobic exercise such as running, cycling, and all things cardio can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). We need healthy levels of BDNF for new neurons to grow and differentiate, and for the ones, we already have to survive and make new connections. Significant effects were seen with more than 20 hours of aerobic exercise, so it takes time for you to see results. Additionally, people with neurological disorders such as depression can have double the rise in BDNF with exercise. Some people unfortunately have gene variations that lead to lower BDNF production, so you may need additional support or workarounds.
Many people with neurological disorders sadly become less active. Whether you need accessible options, it feels too challenging, or you just feel discouraged because of your condition, finding adaptive sports or support groups could help you to get healthier.
Protecting You Now and Into The Future
Some evidence suggests that regular exercise can protect us against developing Alzheimer’s disease. One analysis of studies found a 40% reduction in Alzheimer’s disease risk in people who take on the recommended exercise amount of 150 or more minutes each week. This is around 30 minutes a day, five days per week. Another found that six months of regular aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the main memory centre, which shrinks with age and in Alzheimer’s disease.
One way that exercise reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s disease is by increasing BDNF, a process that may involve chemicals produced by your muscles. There’s even a bright side to the burning fatigue you get with vigorous exercise. Lactate, the chemical responsible for said burn, can travel into the brain and boost BDNF. Ketones, which are made from fatty acids as an energy source when glucose is in short supply, help out too. Another important mechanism is stimulating the production of new mitochondria, the energy-producing centres of the cell. These fall in number with age, and also in function as new mitochondria aren’t being made to replace the old, damaged ones.
Exercise and Mental Clarity
It’s not just your future brain health that exercise can help protect. Better brain regeneration and energy production could benefit you now, too. New neurons may help you learn new information, allowing you to feel mentally clearer during the day and potentially improve intelligence. Together with restored energy generation, you could feel more alert and focused, with less brain fog.
Reversing Brain Damage
Even if you have dabbled in harmful habits in the past such as alcohol abuse, exercise can still help you. Multiple studies, both in humans and animals, show that exercise can potentially help reverse the neuroinflammation, oxidative stress, and HPA axis imbalances that damage the brain in cases of alcohol abuse. Your past is nothing to be ashamed of, no matter what happened, and it’s not too late to make changes.
Exercise and Depression
We’re all familiar with the “runner’s high” we enjoy after a workout. We know that exercise gives us endorphins that improve our mood, but could this extend to clinical depression? As some clinical studies have shown that exercise can help to reduce the symptoms of depression, other researchers aimed to find out why.
Depression is associated with shrinkage of several areas of the brain. These are the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex (which connects emotional and cognitive centres), prefrontal cortex (one of those cognitive centres), striatum (which helps control motor function and “reward” responses) and white matter in the corpus callosum (which connects the two halves of the brain). This shrinkage could be either a cause or consequence of depression or possibly both. Fortunately, physical activity can increase the size of the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex. With a restored volume, these centres of the brain are better able to regulate emotions and the stress response, while helping you to think clearly and stay motivated.
Exercise and Multiple Sclerosis: Can Exercise Improve Motor Function?
What exercise can do for the brain is more than mental and cognitive health. It could extend to our motor function too, including in cases of multiple sclerosis (MS). Some research shows that people with MS have a lower relapse rate with exercise training, at 4.6% per year instead of 6.3%. While the medical world believed until recently that physical activity was harmful in MS, any worsening of symptoms is more likely to be short-term. In a Danish study, for example, resistance (strength) training increased distance on the six-minute walking test by 55 metres. In imperial terms, this is an improvement of 180 feet. Their average walking speed rose from 1.29 up to 1.51 metres per second, too (an improvement from 4’ 2.8” to 4’ 11”). Once again, it is thought that the protection and improvement of brain volume were behind these gains. With the increasing use of stem cell therapy to treat MS, you want to maximize its efficacy if you choose to go down this path. Thankfully, exercise seems to be an accessible option.
Overall, the major benefit of exercise for neurological health seems to be improved regeneration. Gone are the days when brain damage repair appeared to be a distant hope. Even seemingly simple measures such as exercise can increase our natural regenerative processes to an extent.
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