Why Exercise is Good for Your Brain
Exercise is essential for good physical health, but did you know it's just as important for mental health too?
Mental exercise keeps your brain sharp and physical exercise keeps it nourished with oxygen, it grows brain cell connections and fights mental ill health. If you don't exercise your muscles they lose their strength, suppleness and agility and it's the same for your brain. Use it or lose it applies here.
Here are some reasons why exercise boosts your brain.
Increased blood flow
Exercise makes your heart pump harder meaning that more oxygen-rich blood reaches your brain. Experts say the brain uses 20% of all oxygenated blood. The more oxygen that reaches it, the better it performs.
As we age the rate of new brain cell growth slows and our brains shrink, but exercise fights back. A study showed that in sedentary people aged 60-79 brain volume grew after six months of aerobic exercise. This was not the case with participants who undertook stretching and toning exercises only.
Brain Cell and Neuron Growth
Exercise produces more Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which stimulates brain cell growth and supports the hippocampus region that's responsible for memory. Researchers at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found exercise creates an improvement in brain 'white matter' which is responsible for neural conduction between brain regions. This was true of children aged 9-10 and adults aged 60-78.
People with depression are advised to exercise as part of their treatment. This is because exercise lifts mood.
When we workout our bodies produce serotonin and dopamine, the feel good hormones that boost our mood, alongside endorphins that make us relaxed and happy. Serious depression requires medication, but exercise can help alleviate symptoms in those with mild or temporary depression.
It Fights Stress
The stress hormone cortisol ages the brain causing 'scattered thinking' and preventing concentration. Most people know from experience that when they're stressed they forget things. Exercise helps to lower levels of cortisol. It also generates nerve cells in the dentate gyrus - the hippocampus region that supports new memory creation.
A study from the University of Colorado at Boulder found exercise, forced or not, helped fight stress and anxiety, so it's worth heading out for some exercise even if you really don't want to.
It Supports 'Executive Function'
The executive function of the brain allows us to organise and plan complex tasks, focus on the future and think 'outside the box' about abstract ideas. It also refers to our working memory ability which allows us to practically carry out a task whilst thinking about something different.
A study has shown that participants between the ages of 55 and 80 performed four times better on cognitive tests if they exercised regularly. Particularly beneficial were 30-45 minute exercise sessions.
Improved Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin resistance is bad for your brain power. Our bodies turn food into glucose for energy but to feed cells glucose must attach itself to insulin. Diabetics have cells that resist insulin, but people with high levels of blood sugar can be affected by glucose in their brain cells too. Exercise increases insulin sensitivity and stabilises blood sugar for 16 hours afterwards. This protects against the cognitive ageing decline.
It Helps You Achieve Goals
Exercise requires commitment, a psychological trait that not everyone possesses. Regular exercise can help develop a sense of commitment. Staying on a treadmill for 30 minutes means you're more likely to stay committed to a work task because you develop will power.
What Exercise is Best for the Brain?
Exercise boosts our brains, but what type is best for mental health? If you only have limited time to exercise here's how can you make the most of it.
- Aerobic exercise increases levels of blood pumping through your body and therefore the amount of oxygen reaching your brain.
- Exercise in the morning is thought to set your body and mind up for the day. It helps you retain information and improves executive function. Why not walk the school run instead of driving?
- Circuits are particularly good at raising heart rates.
- If you are tired from concentration, break for a fast walk, some star jumps or even a dance around the room. The blood will refresh your brain and kick-start your thought process.
Those who are new to exercise should start slowly and build up to heart rate raising exercises. Walking and swimming are two great ways to ease into cardiovascular exercise.
Don't neglect other forms of exercise as you try to boost your mental capacity though. Weight-bearing exercise strengthens bones and stretching lessens the likelihood of sustaining an injury. It can also reduce stress levels.
In our internet age it's easy to forget about it but exercise is both a preventative and a cure for physical and mental health problems. Try to do a little every day and you'll quickly feel the benefits.