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August 02, 2022 7 min read

There are many examples of positive effects to being physically active. Some really big pay offs include reducing the odds of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Maybe you are interested in losing weight, lowering your blood pressure, preventing depression, or just looking and feeling better.

Another extremely huge benefit of exercise, one that especially applies to those of us experiencing the brain fog that comes with age, is that exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.

Recent evidence indicates that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets you puffing, panting & sweating, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, which is the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.

This insight into the benefits of exercise on the brain come at a critical time.

Researchers say one new case of dementia is detected every four seconds globally and it is estimated that by the year 2050, more than 115 million people will have dementia worldwide.

Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means.

The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety.

Problems in these areas frequently cause or exacerbate cognitive impairment.

As human beings, we are not genetically programmed to live in a state of idleness and lethargy. If we do, our brains pay a high price, both in the short and long term.

You may inherently know that exercise is good for you, but do you know how it affects the brain? The research in this area is quite fascinating!

Exercise promotes neurogenesis

One of the major benefits of exercise could be that it helps the brain make new neurons (i.e. neurogenesis). In the hippocampus, which is a brain structure crucial to learning and memory, there are cells known as neural progenitors that can give rise to new brain cells.

Recently, there's been debate about whether humans make new neurons throughout life.

Research in rodents have demonstrated that neurogenesis in adulthood helps keep certain cognitive skills sharp, including the ability to learn about the physical environment and remember how to navigate it. In fact, some studies have linked regular exercise to neurogenesis. Newborn hippocampal neurons that survive in their brains have doubled in animals that exercise. These animals also showed enhanced memories and markers of neurogenesis [1]. 

Exercise promotes cardiovascular health & blood flow to the brain

It is well known that exercise enhances cardiovascular health. One of the key benefits of improving cardiovascular health is an increase in blood circulation to the body and brain. An increase in blood circulation will enhance the transport of nutrients to the brain, skin and vital organs. This increase in blood flow is critical to brain health.  

Varicose veins, kidney disease, and stroke are all related to limited blood circulation.

Research confirms that blood viscosity shows a correlation with age-related cognitive impairment, and conditions such as dementia [2].

In the brain of a healthy and active person, the hippocampus is firm and flexible, these characteristics are a direct result of regular exercise. When there is a decrease in blood flow, the hippocampus cannot perform key functions, such as storing and recalling information, so it’s imperative to have healthy blood flow to our brain as we age.

Exercise reduces inflammation

Chronic inflammation that begins in one area (from injury, illness, or microbiota disturbances, especially in the gut) can cause a breakdown in barriers, resulting in escaped pathogens or other harmful substances reaching the bloodstream. 

Upon reaching the bloodstream, these pathogens begin to disrupt the blood-brain barrier, increasing permeability and allowing toxic substances to enter the brain, which culminates in neurodegeneration.   

The protective effect of exercise against chronic inflammation-associated diseases may, to some extent, be attributed to an anti-inflammatory effect of regular exercise. The anti-inflammatory effect of regular exercise may be mediated by a reduction in visceral fat mass (with a subsequent decreased release of adipokines from adipose tissue) and/or by the production of an anti-inflammatory environment with each bout of exercise.  Learn more about how to reduce inflammation here.

Exercise enhances cognitive function

One of the immediate effects of exercise is the increase in levels of dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline neurotransmitters. The synergistic effect of these three together causes hyperstimulation of the mind, which results in an increased focus of attention and reaction time, for at least two hours.

Therefore, even a single workout can have cathartic effects on your brain and cognition.

The following graph may help explain how psychological states influenced by the three main neurotransmitters interact following exercise:

Have you ever experienced a ‘feel-good’ sensation immediately after exercise? If so, you may have experienced the phenomenon known as the ‘runner’s high.’ This is a temporary euphoric state that typically comprises elated, contented feelings and a general sense of well-being. Learn more about how to enhance cognitive functioning here

Exercise protects the nervous system

Arguably, the most important aspect of exercise is its protective effects on the brain.  Your brain is like a muscle, the more you exercise it, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets.  This is crucial because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurogenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline that typically occurs with aging.

Exercise does not prevent neurological illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s, which are conditions that impact memory, behavior and daily functioning, but over time, consistent exercise will strengthen and enlarge the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which will defend against degenerative conditions.  This will in turn, bolster cognitive function and enables people to thrive with the activities of daily living and quality of life.

Exercise eases neurological problems

The pharmaceutical industry is currently the “go to” and aid of choice for many neurological problems. For example, biological depression is eased by antidepressants, anxiety by benzodiazepines, ADHD by amphetamines, insomnia by benzodiazepines, and a range of other psychoactive drugs [3].

Exercise plays a vital role in healing certain states of suffering. 

It’s been argued that the neurological benefits of exercise are more effective in managing depressive symptoms than psychoactive treatments. Interestingly, recent research indicates that exercise was the best treatment for patients experiencing depression—and without the common side effects of antidepressants [4].

 

With increased neural plasticity (i.e., change of brain function),  the brain can recover after disorders and injuries, and thereby diminish the effects of harmful neurological illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, cognitive deterioration, Alzheimer’s, dyslexia, ADHD, insomnia.

Exercise lowers stress hormones

Activation of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis is an endocrine mechanism triggered by environmental or metabolic stressors that mediates the adaptive response to physical exercise.  

However, cortisol is also a well-known mediator of the beneficial effects of physical exercise, with several lines of evidence showing that this hormone plays a critical role in the mechanisms that improve cognition in exercised rodents.  

One possibility to explain this paradox could be that, while exercise buffers the HPA axis response, chronic stress leads to an exacerbated activation of this system [5], which is counterproductive. In this context, the stress response and homeostatic imbalance induced by exercise may promote compensatory mechanisms and increased resilience, therefore essentially “hardening the response” to stress.  

Best physical exercises for brain health

Not all exercise is created equal meaning that not all exercise has the same beneficial health outcomes. Each exercise activates a different part of the body and brain, so there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ type of activity or exercise plan.

The most effective anti-aging exercises are endurance and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) when looking at preventing aging in the brain.

Although walking is considered one of the best and most accessible forms of physical activity, and gentle on the joints, there are other forms of aerobic exercise that get your blood pumping might yield similar benefits.  Click here to learn more about improving brain health.

How to exercise your brain (non-physical)

The brain is involved in everything we do and, like any other part of the body, it needs to be cared for too. Exercising the brain to improve memory, focus, or daily functionality is a top priority for many people, especially as they get older. That said, people of all ages can benefit from incorporating a few simple brain exercises into their daily life.

These are exercises that are considered non-physical and more termed “mental exercises”.

Research has shown that there are many ways you can hone your mental sharpness and help your brain stay healthy, no matter what age you are. Doing certain brain exercises to help boost your memory, concentration, and focus can make daily tasks quicker and easier to do, and keep your brain sharp as you get older.

You can learn more about how to improve mental performance here.

Calories burned by thinking

The brain—unlike any other part of the body—runs exclusively on the sugar glucose, and strenuous cognitive activities require more glucose than simple ones.  During a difficult memorization task, for example, the parts of your brain involved in memory formation will start consuming more energy, but other brain areas will not demonstrate this increase in energy consumption.

As an energy-consumer, the brain is the most expensive organ we carry around with us.

While the brain represents just 2% of a person’s total body weight, it accounts for 20% of the body’s energy use. That means during a typical day, a person uses about 320 calories just to think. Different mental states and tasks can subtly affect the way the brain consumes energy.

You can learn more about how thinking burns calories by clicking here.

 

 

References:
1.    van Praag, H., G. Kempermann, and F.H. Gage, Running increases cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the adult mouse dentate gyrus. Nat Neurosci, 1999. 2(3): p. 266-70.
2.    Schwarb, H., et al., Aerobic fitness, hippocampal viscoelasticity, and relational memory performance. Neuroimage, 2017. 153: p. 179-188.
3.    Berezin, R. Psychiatric Drugs Are False Prophets With Big Profits. 2015.
4.    Cooney, G.M., et al., Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2013(9): p. CD004366.
5.    Zschucke, E., et al., The stress-buffering effect of acute exercise: Evidence for HPA axis negative feedback. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2015. 51: p. 414-25.

Dr. Paul Henning

About Dr. Paul

I'm currently an Army officer on active duty with over 15 years of experience and also run my own health and wellness business. The majority of my career in the military has focused on enhancing Warfighter health and performance. I am passionate about helping people enhance all aspects of their lives through health and wellness. Learn more about me