It is well known that engaging in regular exercise is important for keeping our body healthy. Most of us take pleasure in knowing that our daily walk, run or gym session not only makes us feel energised, but helps to lower blood pressure, burn fat and increase muscle density. But what about the benefits of exercise for our brain?
Canadian researchers have recently confirmed that even gentle activity has a positive effect on memory and thinking. They measured cognitive performance in elderly individuals over a course of two to five years. The individuals were put into groups based on how active they were, though none of them classed themselves as exercisers. The results were impressive. Ninety percent of those with the highest energy expenditure showed no loss in memory or thinking ability over the course of the five years, whilst the sedentary group’s abilities got worse. This is encouraging news for those of us who hate to exercise for exercise sake as simple activities like walking, cooking and gardening can keep our brain fighting fit. The findings suggest that physical activity can play an important part in slowing the cognitive decline associated with diseases like dementia.
Interestingly, research also shows that the kind of exercise we engage in affects our brain health differently. One such study was recently published in the Neurobiology of Ageing which showed that weight training improves mental processing ability in older women. When one group of women was assigned to a program of 12 months of light duty weight training and the other group a balance and toning program, those on the weights program scored significantly higher on tests of mental processing ability. What’s more, MRI scans showed increased blood flow in brain regions associated with mental agility. Researchers concluded that weight bearing exercise may improve mental processing more directly than other exercise forms.
In the same way working out makes our muscles bigger, it also grows our brain. MRI scans show increases in grey matter in the hippocampus regions of children, adults and elderly individuals as they get fitter. This part of the brain is crucial for memory and learning, making a workout well worth our while. This ‘brain bulking’ effect explains why good cardiovascular fitness is linked to better memory recall. Exercise might also have an even more immediate effect on learning. Researchers in Germany observed better learning in individuals that were either cycling or walking whilst learning a foreign language, compared with those who did not engage in any exercise.
It is not just memory and learning that exercise improves, but concentration too. A Dutch study found that alternating aerobic exercise classes with academic lessons improved the attention span of school children. A larger study carried out in the U.S. found that over a year, students who attended after-school-sports classes saw a significant improvement in executive function - the brain’s ability to focus, filter, hold and manipulate information. These gains were positively associated with the students’ increased fitness. So not only does exercise make us look better, but it may increase our genius!
Another brain-worthy reason to exercise is that it makes us happier and calmer. Scientists now understand that the ‘feel good’ effect triggered by exercise occurs because it stimulates the same psychoactive receptor in the brain as cannabis, creating a pleasure-enhancing, pain-reducing effect. It is thought that thirty minutes of cardiovascular exercise such as running, walking or cycling is enough to achieve this. Strikingly, exercise - be it cardiovascular or resistance - has been found to be as effective at treating depression as drug therapy and psychological treatments.
Yoga, albeit low impact, may hold the key in helping us to manage our emotions. A 2010 study found that those who participated in daily yoga and meditation for eight weeks experienced reduced stress and showed a shrinkage in their amygdala, the brain structure associated with processing fear and anxiety. All the more reason to get onto your mat!
The social side of exercise may also be valuable for brain health. Elderly women showed cognitive improvements after attending a weekly one hour dance class for six months from which they gained little cardiovascular fitness, but lots of physical and social interaction. Again, this points towards the power of exercise in slowing the degenerative effects of ageing.
More work is being done to pinpoint the exact reason that exercise is so mentally medicinal, but scientists speculate that it relates to increases in brain blood flow and how this triggers growth hormones, new network formation and even neurogenesis, the birth of brand new brain cells.
Author : Kelly Crawford is passionate about health, well being, running and minimalism. As a competitive runner, she has insight into the struggles of balancing work-outs with good nutrition and injury prevention. She is a contributing writer for HardBoiledBody.com – a site dedicated to health, nutrition and fitness advice.
by Guest Blogger Kelly Crawford -