It’s no secret that exercise can do wonders for our health. Exercise is good for weight loss, preventing disease, improving heart health and increasing well-being. Also, let’s be honest – if you’re a workout enthusiast, you know how good it feels to work out.
There is plenty of research to support these claims. However, the benefits of exercise go beyond the physiological effects. Not surprisingly, it also affects our neurobiology. As a 24/7 machine, the brain takes the brunt of our training (even though we don’t realize it). So how does exercise affect the brain?
Read more: Psychedelic effects on the brain
How exercise affects the brain
Exercise, especially aerobic activity, affects the brain in many ways. Exercise not only helps you fight disease, improve your mood and provide a burst of energy, but it works on direct mechanisms in our neural system to ensure lifelong health and well-being. While the list of benefits is exhaustive, here are some of the most notable ways exercise affects the brain—don’t be surprised how interconnected they are.
Exercise improves brain plasticity
According to researchers, aerobic exercise and weight training help the brain become more flexible, improving neuroplasticity. Why is this important? Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change or adapt when we learn or participate in something new. Brain plasticity directly affects basic cognitive functions such as memory and learning.
For example, when you learn another language or travel to an unfamiliar destination, how you assimilate the new information depends on the “plasticity” of your brain, which is usually more adaptable the younger you are. A baby’s developing brain is a perfect example of neuroplasticity, for that matter.
Exercise reduces the risk of cognitive decline and dementia
If you want to organically sharpen your knowledge and prevent cognitive diseases, get ready to tie your shoes. This is because aerobic exercise stops the hippocampus from shrinking.
“Exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors,” says study in Trends in Neuroscience. BDNF are proteins responsible for plasticity in the brain and supporting memory and learning. This process is important for the elderly as it slows the cognitive decline due to aging – reducing the risk of dementia.
Plus aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which in turn can prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Through exercise, one increases the heart rate, improving oxygenation of the brain and maximizing the use of oxygen in the cerebral tissues. This in itself improves mental health.
Exercise improves memory
Another way exercise affects the brain is by helping our memory function. In clinical trials, a group of researchers found that exercise leads to structural changes in the brain, including “increased gray matter volume in the frontal and hippocampal regions.” This means that exercise promotes the growth of brain cells in the hippocampus area, which controls our memory and thinking.
Evidence shows that these changes improve ours cognitive functions, including memory, attention and information processing (also known as executive control processes). This mechanism of brain function also aligns with a reduction in cognitive decline.
Exercise reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression
If you are looking for natural alternatives to reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, exercise is the way to go. Furthermore reducing insulin resistance and inflammation in the brainexercise stimulates the delivery of growth chemicals that support new blood vessels and maintain healthy brain cells, subsequently slowing damaged ones.
These findings are consistent with a report on the antidepressant effect of running in Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. In the study, the scientists suggested that inhibiting the growth of cells in the hippocampus could be one of the leading causes of depression.
Read more: What is anxiety and how can anxiety defeat us?
But that’s not all. Another study shows that changes in brain structure increase serotonin, beta-endorphins and other neurotransmitters. Beta-endorphins are hormones responsible for managing pain and stress. Serotonin is the brain’s natural chemical that regulates our mood, among other functions – that happy feeling, perhaps euphoria, comes from serotonin. Researchers see a connection between low levels of this chemical and depression. Like serotonin, releasing endorphins helps relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Does exercise intensity affect the brain?
Whether you prefer low-, moderate-, or high-intensity workouts, the benefits of physical activity for overall health are undeniable. Of course, your doctor will be the first to tell you. Still, research shows that moderate-to-vigorous intensity exercise is the winner when it comes to lasting effects on the brain. Thus, aerobic exercise—those that get your heart pumping and make you sweat—seems to provide greater benefits. A massive study showed that memory performance and cognitive flexibility are improved by moderate-intensity exercise, while high-intensity exercise increases peripheral BDNF and boosts cognitive function. What’s more, the cognitive benefits are significant in older adults.
Read more: How to maintain your exercise routine into old age
However, this does not mean that you should reject other types of exercise. On the contrary, you can still hack a wealth of benefits from weight and strength training. But how long should you exercise?
Experts recommend 2 to 2.5 hours of moderate activity per week—roughly 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day—or 75 minutes of vigorous activity (just over an hour). Brisk walking, ballroom dancing, water aerobics, gardening, and bicycling are some examples of moderate-intensity exercise. If you like to work up a sweat, jogging, running, cycling, jumping rope, lap swimming, and martial arts are great options for high-intensity activities.
The choice is yours. Although the literature is full of evidence about how exercise affects the brain, there is no clear answer as to which activity is best. So the big thing here is to keep moving. No doubt your brain will thank you.