Your Brain on Exercise

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Most of us have grown up with the idea that exercise is so good for your body’s health.  It seems that as a generation we were only focused or aware of the benefits from the neck down. Today things are a bit different.  While it is still about the body, more and more, people are discovering that it also helps how we feel and think! In recent years, neurological studies have discovered that exercise can have long lasting immediate benefits and preventative advantages to the brain as well.

HOW, YOU ASK?  LET US FIRST TAKE A LOOK AT HOW OUR BRAIN WORKS.

The human brain is not a static organ but rather a malleable web of brain cells called neurons designed to change shape in response to internal and external stimuli. The average human brain has about 100 billion neurons and many more neuroglia(or glial cells) which serve to support and protect the neurons. Each neuron may be connected to up to 10,000 other neurons, passing signals to each other via as many as 1,000 trillion synaptic connections. Information transmission within the brain, such as takes place during the processes of memory encoding and retrieval, is achieved using a combination of chemicals and electricity.

HOW DOES THIS ALL CONNECT TO PHYSICAL EXERCISE?

Author Debbie Hampton wrote in her article titled How Exercise Helps Your Brain,” Moving your body increases the blood flow to your brain which elevates oxygen levels which trig­gers bio­chem­i­cal changes protecting the new resulting neu­rons by bathing them in nerve growth fac­tor (BDNF). These conditions encourage your brain to grow and change by forming new neural pathways and synaptic con­nec­tions, a process known as neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity allows the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. For many years it was thought that humans had a finite set of neurons to work with and that once they were lost, there was no way of regenerating them. According to Dr. Amar Sahay from Massachusetts General Hospital, “ The reality is that everyone has the capacity to develop new cells that can help enhance cognitive functions.”

In general, exercise improves the connectivity of brain circuits, increases gray matter (actual neurons), combats and reverses the brain shrinkage associated with aging, increases performance on cognitive tasks, and shields you from stress and depression.

Neuroscientist, Wendy Suzuki, in her Ted Talk spoke about 3 benefits that long term exercise has on the brain:

  1. Exercise helps produce new brain cells(through neurogenesis) in the hippocampus that will actually increase its volume, as well as improve long term memory.

  2. Improved attention span and immediate mood elevations that are long lasting.

  3. Protective effects on your brain. The more you work out the stronger the brain gets which will add a layer of protection against dementia and Alzheimer's

HOW MUCH EXERCISE DOES THE TRICK?

Research has shown that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. Cardio workouts work well but to get a really big brain boost, you might want to try things that use both physical stamina and focused concentration such as tennis, dancing, and kickboxing. Think of it as compound exercise. You are building muscle in your body while creating new neurons in your brain.

Despite all our studies, the brain continues to be the big mystery of the body.  So we may discover that exercise has even more positive effects than we are currently aware of. Already there is speculation and ongoing studies regarding  neurogenesis in other parts of the brain. These are exciting times for brain study! What we do know for sure is that sustained aerobic exercise has benefits for the whole body and should be encouraged for everyone of us.