Exercise and Brain Health: Three Massive Benefits
Exercise changes the structure of our body tissues in well documented ways, for example by reducing fat and increasing muscle mass. Less visible, and potentially more important, is the profound influence exercise has on the structure of our brains; this influence can help protect and preserve brain health and function throughout life. Not surprisingly, many experts believe that the human brain depends on regular physical activity to function optimally throughout our lifetime.
The following are three ways that exercise improves and protects our brains.
Improves and maintains MEMORY
Studies suggest that exercise can help protect our memory as we age. This is because exercise has been shown to prevent the loss of total brain volume, which can lead to lower cognitive function. Further, exercise will help prevent shrinkage in specific brain regions associated with memory. One magnetic resonance imaging scan study indicated that in older adults, six months of exercise training increases brain volume. (1)
Another study showed that shrinkage of the hippocampus (a brain region essential for learning and memory) in older people can be reversed by regular walking. This change was accompanied by improved memory function and an increase of the protein brain-derived neutropic factor (BDNF). (2)
BDNF is essential for healthy cognitive function due to its roles in cell survival, plasticity (the brain’s ability to change and adapt from experience), and function. Positive links between exercise, BDNF, and memory have been widely investigated and have been demonstrated in young adults and older people.
BDNF also promotes adult neurogenesis, the brain’s ability to modify its structure by developing new neurons. Neurogenesis occurs only in very few brain regions – one of which is the hippocampus – and thus may be a central mechanism involved in learning and memory. Regular physical activity may protect memory in the long term by inducing neurogenesis via BDNF
Supports healthy BLOOD VESSELS
Our brains are dependent on blood flow, receiving approximately 15% of the body’s entire supply despite being only 2-3% of our body mass. This is because our nervous tissues need a constant supply of oxygen to function and survive. When we exercise, blood flow to neurons increases which improves blood vessel health and the formation of new blood vessels that supply the oxygen, glucose and nutrients required by brain cells.
Finally, regular exercise can prevent, and even treat high blood pressure, which is a risk factor for the development of dementia.
Works to reduce and control INFLAMMATION
A growing body of research has centered on microglia, which are the resident immune cells of the brain. Their main function is to monitor the brain for potential threats from microbes or dying or damaged cells, and to clear any damage they find.
With age, healthy immune function declines, and chronic, low-level inflammation occurs in body organs, including the brain, where it increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Over time, microglia become less efficient at clearing damage and less able to prevent disease and inflammation. This means neuroinflammation can progress, impairing brain functions such as memory.
Recently, research has demonstrated that exercise can reprogram the microglia in aged brains. Exercise was shown to make the microglia more energy-efficient and capable of counteracting inflammatory changes that impair brain function. Exercise can also modulate inflammation in degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
Research has not yet determined the sweet spot of exercise for supporting brain health. A reasonable minimum target of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, combined with activities that maintain strength and flexibility is recommended. If you are looking for an activity that most everyone can partake in, look no further than going for a daily walk. As referenced above, simply walking on a regular basis will produce measurable benefits in your brain.
Don’t Forget to Include a Healthy Diet!
One of the most powerful ways by which we can improve and protect our brain health is by carefully choosing what we consume. By all means, follow an anti-inflammatory diet, rich in plants and healthy fats such as omega-3. Your diet literally translates into the level of chronic inflammation you will experience. Some foods drive the inflammatory process; think processed foods high in calories and low in nutrients. Processed foods also tend to be high in unhealthy fats. In fact, research shows that hydrogenated or “transfats” have an immediate and damaging effect on brain structure and health.
Nutrients that fight chronic inflammation and support brain health include omega-3 fats, vitamin D, resolving mediators, and therapeutic herbs such as Ashwagandha and curcumin.
- Physical Activity and Brain Plasticity in Late Adulthood
KI Erickson, AG Gildengers… - Dialogues in clinical …, 2013 - ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- Evidence for a Release of Brain‐Derived Neurotrophic Factor from the Brain During Exercise
P Rasmussen, P Brassard, H Adser… - Experimental …, 2009 - Wiley Online Library