Physical Exercise for Brain Health

Jessica Lewis
May 18, 2016

How exercise help brain functions?

For decades’ medical experts have debated the connection between physical exercise and brain health. How physical activities are connected with brain development and health?

These and similar questions on the benefits of physical exercise for a healthy mind and sparked numerous research studies. Trial results were outstanding, proving without a doubt that physical activity plays a vital role in improving your brain health.

Needless to stress that exercise improves circulation and hence keeps the body healthy. According to research, deeper connections exist between these two aspects. The main association between cerebral and physical activity is the improved circulation of blood. A good circulation with exercise increases blood flow to the brain.

Walking, running, jogging, swimming or other exercises also help the mind to get rid of depression and negative thoughts. Therefore, often when we are sad engaging in physical will remove all our bad thoughts and help us solve problems more effectively.

According to other studies, physical exercise is highly beneficial for brain functions, and if you are looking for brainpower, you must include other activities besides mental and physical activity into the daily routine. Such persons engaged in physical activity have proved good memory skills, greater concentration capacity, better analytical skills and so on.

A good exercise for brain activation, both for young people and for older people: even when you’re waking up and about to get out of bed, move your fingers and stretch your toes. This is a very effective method for those who spend long hours working at the computer also. This simple exercise helps the brain to become more alert.

As you can see from the above, movement and brain have a strong bond whose benefits can be felt only if we start to introduce exercise into our daily routines. Regular exercise seems to better protect the brain from the danger of shrinking, an otherwise natural process associated with aging, which results in the emergence of memory and reasoning problems, according to a new study published by LiveScience.

Contrary to the appearances, activities that stimulate us mentally and socially, which were believed to keep the brain in the best shape possible, have no major effect against the process of shrinkage of the brain, but on the other hand, physical exercise will help your brain fight the side effects of aging.

If we want to maximize our capabilities to play chess, it is better to choose an opponent who is on the other side of the city and to walk or run to him. In this study, based on brain imaging, involving 600 volunteers in Scotland, aged between 70 and 73 years, researchers looked for hard data to confirm the relationship between physical exercise and brain health . The study identified a strong and direct correlation between increased physical activity and decreased intensity reduction rate of the brain. “People in their seventies who participated in the more physical exercise, including walking several times a week, had less brain shrinkage and other signs of aging in the brain than those who were less physically active,” said lead author Alan J. Gow of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “On the other hand, our study showed no real benefit to participating in mentally and socially stimulating activities on brain size, as seen on MRI scans, over the three-year time frame.”

To be definitive, we do of course need more large-scale trials examining the effects of physical activity interventions, to determine which factors determine what, Gow told LiveScience. “We are following up the same individuals [for] repeat lifestyle assessments and brain scans, which will allow us to examine the direction of the associations in more detail.”. “On the other hand, our study did not identify any benefit on halting the decrease brain activity that stimulates thinking’, as we have seen in the three years while conducting this study”, he added.

Both physical and mental activities have numerous other benefits – first preventing chronic diseases, and ultimately eliminating the states of depression and fatigue – so doctors urge us that regardless of age, if possible, to make sure that our daily program will abound in both types of activities.

Benefits of physical exercises for the brain

Aerobic activities, aerobic exercises that require more oxygen, nourish different parts of the brain, especially the basal ganglia, cerebellum, and corpus callosum. Oxygen comes with the added extra blood that increases your ability to understand and retain new information. Activities that involve physical coordination support neural development. Here are the most important benefits of physical exercise for brain and mental health:

  • Physical exercise reduces stress. You had a full day and hard at work / school? Take a break and go do your walk, or go and do some exercise, outdoors or in the gym. Training increases the concentration of norepinephrine, which helps the brain to react properly in case of stress. So do not hesitate, go for it, you will help your body fight stress in both physical and mental from.
  • Physical exercise improves your mood and makes you happy. Many tests have shown that exercise helps to fill you up with the endorphins that make you happy. Some doctors recommend those with problems of depression or anxiety to quit taking pills and start doing exercises. Even if you’re not the athletic/sporty type, exercising 30-45 minutes a day can improve your mood. Try it and you will not regret it!
  • Physical exercise increases your confidence in yourself. It is known that those who play sports have higher self-confidence and self-image. Regardless of the weight that you have, whatever way you look, just that you started to exercise makes you more confident, makes you feel better in your body and makes you have a greater confidence in yourself.
  • Outdoor training is also beneficial. Get all the above reasons to make the move and add fresh air and, why not, a bit of vitamin D. If you enjoy a sunny day move your workout outdoors. You will see how good you will feel!
  • Physical exercise prevents cognitive decline. We do not like to hear, but it is known that as we age, our brain becomes lazy, reluctant, increasingly more as time passes. They say that when you’re young you learn to talk when you’re old you learn to shut up. Specifically, as we grow we learn, and as we become old we become more like children. It makes no sense to mention here aging diseases such as Alzheimer’s … Sure, exercise, movement, cannot cure this, but can prevent these conditions. We mentioned at the beginning of the article a few studies that covered this so you know this is already scientifically tested and proved.
  • Physical exercise fights against anxiety. Quick question: what soothes you better? A hot bath or a slow jog? You will be surprised to see how much help the excise will be in the fight against anxiety. For those who believe that interval training only helps burning calories, I have good news: helps to fight anxiety also.
  • Physical exercise enhances the intellect. Tests done on lab rats have shown that those which exercised were more intelligent than those who were not undergoing fitness tests (running on the wheel, labyrinth, obstacles). The researchers argue that cardiovascular exercise can lead to neurogenesis, specifically create new brain cells. Intense training increases levels of a protein in the body which can improve decision making can lead to a sharper focus and a higher thinking power.
  • Physical exercise makes the memory sharper. Physical exercise and sports not only help the kids but also the grown-ups. Those who move frequently are agiler when it comes to memorizing something from a mental standpoint.
  • Physical exercise helps fighting addictions of various kinds. We know that when there is an incentive of pleasure, the brain produces dopamine. Regardless of the pleasure stimulus – sex, drugs, alcohol, food or exercise. Unfortunately, some people become dependent on dopamine, more exactly on what produces the dopamine, the most common being alcohol or drug cases (very rare sex or food). The good thing is that exercise can help with these addictions. Doing exercise produce dopamine, so you fill up your dopamine addiction with something healthier, giving up alcohol and drugs.
  • Physical exercise helps to improve relaxation. It’s very simple: after your workout, you get a boost of energy that makes you more active. Within hours, however, the body enters a state of relaxation, a sign that it’s time for sleep. Many use an evening workout to help them go to sleep easier.
  • Physical exercise makes you more productive. When someone is in a slump and takes a break to do some exercise, becomes more productive and has more energy and strength to work. People who still make time for exercise, even if they have a busy schedule, are more advantaged than the sedentary types, even if they appear at first glance to have more free time.
  • Physical exercise helps to increase creativity. Those who exercise frequently will always be more creative and have more ideas ready in any situation.
  • Physical exercise helps to inspire those around you. No matter what is, it’s clear that training does not take place in a bubble. It is known that besides the many benefits it has, it also helps to socialize. Especially when you train with a partner, you always try to inspire him, help him, not to disappoint him. That makes you a better person, even if you’re in a small competition with those around you.
  • Exercise can lead to the growth of new neurons. According to a report in the New York Times, exercise influence neurons to secrete brain-derived neurotrophic factor with a role in the activation of stem cells. From those neurotrophic factors, also known as BDNF, new neurons will form. Bone morphogenetic protein is a compound that reduces neurogenesis, i.e. the formation of new neurons. Exercise reduces its level, which allows the formation of new neurons.
  • Exercise increases blood flow to the brain. When we move heart pumps more blood, and breathing is made more often and more deeply. Under these conditions, neurons receive more oxygen and nutrients. Even walking is good for you, to “clear your mind”. The Franklin Institute states that this form of exercise has the advantage of not requiring much muscle, provide more oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
  • Inactivity leads to a decline in cognitive abilities. In the past for the man to survive they were forced to move. Today that is no longer the case, and physical inactivity has become the new way of life. Inactive people are prone to damage of the cardiovascular system and this is a process that leads to a decline in cognitive abilities.
  • Exercise as an antidepressant. At the physiological level depression is given by the low level of serotonin in the brain. Physical exercise increases the amount of serotonin. It has been shown that exercise is as effective as antidepressants to make people feel good. Depression is also associated with low levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters beneficial effects on attention and concentration. As with serotonin, exercise favors their synthesis.
  • Physical exercise stimulates brain development in children. According to a meta-analysis done by Sibley and Etnier in 2003 about the relationship between exercise and the development of children, resulting date reveals real benefits of exercise in terms of perception, intelligence, achievement, verbal tests, tests in mathematics and overall academic level. In addition, according to Hillman CH, Erickson KI, and Kramer AF 2008 (Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience) seems that rats that had access to a running wheel presented a much proper neuronal development in the areas of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
  • The benefits of exercise in neurodegenerative diseases. Scientific literature increasingly makes references to the fact that exercise has the ability to reduce risk, to delay the onset and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. After a study conducted by Swedish researchers for 35 years on 1,500 subjects, it is clear that those had at least two sessions of exercise for 30 minutes a week had a 60% lower risk of suffering from Alzheimer’s. Also, those physically active had a smaller amount of specific protein of Alzheimer’s disease accumulation in the brain. There are indications that physical exercise can bring benefits in other neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s or Parkinson’s.
  • There is a strong link between the nervous and muscular systems. There is a physical connection between muscles and the brain, the neuromuscular junction, underlying muscle contraction. This place is constantly changing information between the two entities via neurotransmitters.

The best physical exercises for your brain

For the first time, scientists have compared the neurological impact of different types of exercises: running, weight exercises and high-intensity workouts. The surprising results suggest that high-intensity training it is not the most successful choice for your brain health.

Studies in animals and humans have revealed that physical activity generally increases brain capacity and reduce the number and size of age-related problems in the white and gray matter of the brain. Exercises, perhaps most significantly, increase neurogenesis in adults, which is the ability to create new nerve cells in a brain already mature.

Some studies that we presented in this article have shown that animals who carried out exercises on wheels or treadmills compared to the inactive ones showed a doubling or even tripling of the number of neurons that appear afterward in the hippocampus, a key area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Scientists believe that exercise has a similar impact on human hippocampus. But so far, these studies, for obvious reasons, relied on running long distances.

The community shows a growing interest, thanks to the popularity growing programs of training, such as weight training and high intensity. So, for a new study, which was published recently in the Journal of Physiology, scientists from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland and other organizations have collected a big set of adult male rats.

The scientists inoculated the rats with a chemical that marks new brain cells and after that, they were divided into separate groups, each with different workouts, plus a control group that remained inactive. Some of the animals were in cages with installed running wheels, allowing them to run freely. Most ran moderately, a few kilometers each day, though the mileage varied individually. Others have performed resistance training, which involved climbing a wall with small weights attached to their tails. And other rats were involved in high-intensity training equivalent for rodents.

For this study, the animals were placed on small treadmills involving intense sprint at a very fast pace for three minutes, then two minutes of leisurely motion, the whole cycle repeated 2 times, for a total of 15 minutes of exercise. This cycle was sustained for seven weeks before scientists examined microscopically the brain tissue of the hippocampus of each animal.

Depending on how each animal was trained, they found very different levels of neurogenesis. Those rats who ran the wheel presented healthy levels of neurogenesis. Their hippocampus was crawling with new neurons, much more than animal brains of the sedentary group. The greater distance covered during the experiment, the newer cells contained his brain.

There were far less new neurons in the brains of rats that have done high-intensity exercises. They showed a greater number of new nerve cells than in the beginning, but much smaller than the distance runners. Rats involved in weight training, though, were much stronger at the end than at the beginning of the experiment but they did not show any visible increase in neurogenesis. Their hippocampus tissue was like that of the animals that were not trained at all.

Clearly, rats are not people but the repercussions of these findings are stimulating. They suggest that “continuous aerobic exercise may be more beneficial for people brain health, too, ” said Miriam Nokia, a researcher at the University of Jyvaskyla, who led the study.

But the fact is that running stimulates neurogenesis much stronger than other types of workouts. It is not clear why, though; Dr. Nokia and colleagues assume that running long distances stimulate the release of certain substances in the brain known as a neurotrophic factor, derived from the brain (brain-derived neurotrophic factor – BDNF) that are responsible for regulating the neurogenesis. The more kilometers animal runs, the more B.D.N.F. they produce.

In contrast, weight training, although extremely beneficial for muscle health, was shown to have little effect on the level of B.D.N.F. in the body, said Dr. Nokia, which could explain why in this study did not contribute to the increase of neurogenesis. High-intensity training is by intention much more stressful and exhausting than running, “stress tends to decrease neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus”,  she said.

However, these results do not mean that just running and temperate endurance exercises will strengthen the brain, said Dr. Nokia. These activities appear to stimulate the best the neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

But high-intensity workouts with weights could probably lead to other changes in other parts of the brain. For example, they can enable the formation of extra blood vessels and new networks between brain cells or of the various parts of the brain. So if you’re currently only training with weights and doing high-intensity exercises you should continue.

If you also try to go for the occasional run or bike ride it will only add some more benefits you will get from your exercise routine and will ensure that not only your body will stay young and fit but also your brain.

If you were not yet convinced of the benefits of the physical exercise, you have now a whole lot of new reasons to start doing it. The best physical exercise for brain health seems to be running so if this is what you want the most, start doing it.