The Pillars of Brain Health: Exercise

The Pillars of Brain Health: Exercise

The brain loves when we break a sweat. The clear-headed euphoria that can accompany the end of a good workout is not a fluke: Research shows that exercise can improve cognitive function, mood, and even change our brain structure.

In the brain, the hippocampus is critical for learning, memory, formation and mood – and exercise is shown to stimulate its growth. This process of neural growth is called neurogenesis – and as we age it can slow down. Neurogenesis creates new neurons, the brain cells responsible for carrying information throughout the body. Neurons’ importance can’t be overstated: They control the muscles that let us boogie on a dance floor and allow us to enjoy the taste of a perfectly ripe peach. 

Like the rest of the brain, the hippocampus shrinks with age and disease. But the neurogenesis stimulated by exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus in the adult brain, strengthening the conditions for cognition and learning.

Exercise promotes neurogenesis, the process of creating new neurons, and neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to learn new things.

Reduced neurogenesis is thought to contribute to age-related cognitive impairment and reduced plasticity – the ability of the brain to change and adapt over time – which is necessary for some types of brain repair. To sum it up: More neurogenesis is a very good thing, especially as we move into adulthood. 

Exercise also stimulates neuroplasticity – the brain's ability to change and adapt in response to new experiences. Our brains undergo neuroplasticity to learn a new language, physical task, or recall a memory. During this process, groups of neurons (neural networks) establish an organized structure and strengthen their unique connections. These connections can be strengthened in the presence of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein/growth factor. Guess what stimulates the production of BDNF – and ultimately improves learning? If you said exercise, you would be correct. (Did you just work out, smarty pants?)

Exercise also has a significant benefit to vascular health in the brain. Blood flow is responsible for delivering oxygen and nutrients to all tissues in the body, especially the brain. Healthy cerebral blood flow (blood flow to the brain) is important to maximize brain function, protect the brain from oxidative damage, and reduce the risk of disease. During physical activity, heart rate and blood pressure increase. Although chronic increases in heart rate and blood pressure can lead to cardiovascular disease, short-term increases can improve vascular health and cerebral blood flow. 

Physical activity can provide a clinical benefit for many chronic diseases including metabolic diseases, neurodegenerative disease, cardiovascular disease, and hormonal disorders. Regular exercise is also documented to reduce symptoms of psychological stress, anxiety, and depression. By incorporating regular physical activity into your lifestyle, you can improve cognitive function, mood, brain structure, and overall brain health.

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