The magic of regular exercise: Boosting brain health
By Tina Stibbe
Every one of us is well aware of the fact that regular physical activity is good for our health in general. First and foremost, it helps maintain a healthy weight and improves cardiovascular function by training the heart. Other benefits include better sleep, increased fitness and flexibility as well as a stronger immune system. In addition, it can also function as a means of stress relief and a mood booster. Taking this wide range of benefits into account, many national advisory committees recommend physical activity of moderate intensity for 150 to 300 minutes per week for adults. Children and adolescents should be even more active to promote growth and healthy development, while older adults should be as active as they can, allowing for their health status.
Brain health depends on a proper blood flow
During physical exercise, many processes in our body are switched on. Our body must provide energy for the muscles by burning calories, which in turn leads to a rise in our body temperature. In order to reduce the feeling of pain during the workout, endorphins (one group of happiness hormones in our body) are released, that make us feel happy and optimistic at the same time. Probably the most affected muscle during physical activity is the heart. Its rate increases during physical activity, leading to an enhanced blood flow to supply the body with more oxygen and nutrients. As one of the organs with the highest demand for energy, the brain benefits immensely from this and its function can be improved verifiably by regular exercise.
A common risk factor for brain health is hypertension. When blood pressure is high, our blood vessels begin to narrow and can also be damaged. This causes a decrease in blood flow, thus limiting the amount of vital nutrients and oxygen reaching the organs. For the brain this means a critical starvation – and eventually the death – of neurons, ultimately manifesting as cognitive decline.
Being active can help keeping your brain active, too
Studies have shown that physical activity has a positive effect on brain development and its plasticity (the ability to adapt and stay flexible as well as to regenerate). This impact is independent of whether you do resistance exercises, i.e., making your muscles work against a certain force such as weight-lifting, or train your endurance through ongoing activities such as running.
This is key, because it means physical exercise refers as much to cardio (running, swimming, biking, and other such intensive activities) as to softer alternatives that keep your body moving – tai chi, going for walks, gardening, yoga, and dancing, to name but a few.
It was long believed that adult brains were not able to generate new neurons, which means once cells died, they could not be replaced. This was also the main explanation for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. However, in the last decades it has been observed that neurons can indeed reproduce in certain areas of the brain, including the crucial location for memory called the hippocampus. There is ample evidence that physical exercise can support the function and structure of this region in a significant way, even if degeneration of neurons has already begun.
Apart from getting regular exercise, it matters how you spend the rest of the day. We have to be vigilant against our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Even after adjusting for physical activity, sitting for long periods is associated with worse health outcomes. The solution is to stand or move around as frequently as possible. Light activity is beneficial.
Learning and memory are dependent on cell communication
The main factors involved in exercise’s beneficial effect on brain health are neurotrophins, which are increasingly produced and distributed upon physical activity. These molecules ensure the survival, development, and correct function of brain cells and give them the ability to adjust their networking activities in response to different stimuli. The connection points between cells in the neuronal network are called synapses, which could be viewed as the gate keepers allowing only specific messenges to pass on to the next cell. The proper activation and signaling in synapses mediate the right kind and amount of communication between neurons. This is especially important for processes like learning and memory.
Watch Video: How Neurons Communicate (brainfacts.org)
Exercise impacts the brain via different pathways
Besides promoting the release of neuroprotective factors in the brain, it is believed that muscles also produce specific factors and metabolites during exercise that have a far-reaching effect on the body. The exact mechanisms through which these molecules influence brain health are not entirely understood. However, one group of these “exercise factors” recently identified, called myokines, supposedly also promote the release of the molecules enhancing brain plasticity – but via a different pathway.
Any physical activity can help you (and your brain) stay healthy
The great news is that it is fairly easy to benefit from the positive impact of physical activity on our brain capacity. So, you can choose the type of activity you like and even make promoting brain health fun. Whether you enjoy going for a run, doing yoga at home or working out at the gym with others – your brain says “Thank you!” either way.
If you are up for more inspiration on exercise and physical activity you can also join the 30-day brain health challenge as part of the Swiss Be Brain Powerful Campaign hosted by the Women’s Brain Project.
Tina Stibbe is a freelance medical writer and CEO at Panakeia AFL.
Main image courtesy of freepik.com