Exercise is a key to a great many things in life: better physical health, better self-esteem, and even better chances of attracting a mate (come on, a six pack is sexy). We know that exercise can aid in coping with stress, depression, and even sleep issues. We even know that some forms of exercise can get you high, legally. But is exercise good for your brain? The short answer is an unsurprising yes, but the long answer is a heck of a lot more interesting…and more complex.
How Is Exercise Good for Your Brain?
With every stride on the treadmill, your heart rate increases, pumping oxygen-rich blood to all your muscles, organs, and tissues – including your brain. Your body operates more efficiently and releases plenty of feel-good hormones. But it’s beyond hormones where researchers see the real brainy benefits. It has been found that physical exercise enhances overall cognition and brain health, but it does so is many ways, even in just 20 minutes.
Exercise and Neurogenesis
Neurogenesis, meaning ‘birth of neurons’ or brain cells, is a process most active during pre-natal development. It was not long ago that most scientists believed that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells, only to degenerate or decrease over time – a literal interpretation of “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” They were right about one thing: the neurogenesis process substantially declines with age, meaning that while you are losing neurons with age, you aren’t replacing them as quickly either. But here is where exercise comes in. Not only does exercise slow this decay, it also kicks neurogenesis into high gear.
So as you bulk up your muscles, you’re bulking up your brain, too. But what can those new neurons do?
Exercise and Brain Plasticity
The answer is not much – on their own. In fact, if neurons do not join up with existing neural networks in your brain, they likely won’t do much of anything but make your brain look a little more buff on an MRI. But exercise doesn’t just create new neurons for looks, the growth factors stimulated by exercise also increase neuroplasticity or brain plasticity that ultimately puts those cells to work. A healthy, functioning neuron can be linked to tens of thousands of other neurons, creating the structural basis for the brain’s memory and thinking ability. By making neural connections, much the way the brain works when learning, overall cognitive ability increases. Those neurons sparked into existence by exercise not only have a higher likelihood of making those powerful connections, but also making connections that can effectively multi-task – firing upon more occasions than just one. Now that’s brain power.
Exercise and Regulating Cortisol
Researchers have found that among other unfavorable outcomes, cortisol, the stress hormone, can accelerate the degeneration of the hippocampus. When exercise causes stress on the body, it stimulates the release of cortisol. It may seem counter-intuitive, but exercise actually raises the cortisol release threshold, which makes the body more resilient to those negative effects of stress – including hippocampal atrophy. Exercise therefore has a protective function, against degenerative effects on one of the most important areas of the brain in terms of memory and learning.
Exercise is Good for Your Brain
Is exercise good for your brain? Yes. How is exercise good for your brain? It jump starts some pretty healthy processes and delays some bad ones. But what does this mean for you and your brain? It means a lot of things, just check out the list of things exercise does for the brain:
- Increases memory, slows memory loss
- Improves learning
- Prompts cognitive clarity and better executive function
- Speeds self-healing, may provide protection from diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
- Fights depression, controls negative effects of stress
So put down that Sudoku and get on that treadmill. Or better yet, get outside! Your brain will thank you.
Neurogenesis and brain plasticity are complex. Exercise cues an increase in a substance called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, which is involved in both. Learn more about it here.