We read over and over that we must keep exercising in order to fend off the effects on the brain of growing older.
That’s great advice for everyone, but it’s a little more complicated than that.
Researchers have found that there are at least five different ways in which exercise can make your brain function better.
1. Exercise Promotes The Growth Of New Brain Cells
Exercise promotes the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain. However, even that simple notion is complicated as a recent study verifies. Researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, with other institutions, set out to discover whether long-distance running, weight training and interval training all produced the same results. They actually set groups of rats to various different workouts, and then measured the level of neurogenesis, or creation of new brain cells, at the end of seven weeks.
They found that strictly in the area of the creation of new brain cells, distance running was the clear winner, while weight training and interval training fell far behind. Assuming humans behave the same as rats, then, distance running or hiking at a fast clip, is our best bet for creating new brain cells. Other researchers have found similar results: even though the birth of new brain cells slows as we age, one study of healthy 60 to 70 year-olds found significant increases in brain volume after six months of aerobic fitness training, but no changes in the controls who only did stretching and toning exercises.
2. Exercise Fights Depression
Taking a good long walk in nature can do wonders to lift your spirits if you’re feeling down and there’s a reason for that. Exercise boosts the brain’s production of several important hormones, including serotonin and dopamine, two brain chemicals that are crucial to a happy mood. Exercise also increases levels of those feel-good chemicals called endorphins. Taken together, these hormones have a powerful impact. According to John J. Ratey, Ph.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, “By elevating neurotransmitters in the brain, it (exercise) helps us focus, feel better, and release tension.”
3. Exercise Can Reduce The Effects Of Stress
Not only can exercise improve your mood when you’re feeling down, it can also help you deal with stressful situations. Cortisol is released in response to fear or stress by the adrenal glands. According to Christopher Bergland, writing in Psychology Today, “The stress hormone, cortisol, is public health enemy number one. Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… The list goes on and on.” Bergland suggests that any aerobic activity, even just 20-30 minutes of activity every day will work to burn up the cortisol in our brains.
4. Exercise Helps Your Brian Function More Efficiently
We’re talking here about cognitive tasks like thinking abstractly, focusing on complex tasks, and being able to memorize items like phone numbers. Basically, when you exercise regularly, you are improving neuroplasticity, which is the ability of the brain to grow with all that rushing of blood and hormones. The importance of this idea has recently found its way into K-12 education. Instructors at Charles Pinckney Elementary School in Charleston, South Carolina, and at other schools in the area, are using Active Brains, a program that uses action-based learning to support the link of movement and physical activity to increased academic performance: students are incorporating exercise into their math classes.
5. Exercise Increases Sensitivity To Insulin
Here’s one you may find surprising: in order for glucose — or blood sugar, that we produce when we eat — to enter brain cells, it must be accompanied by the hormone insulin. However, in some cases, brain cells can become resistant to insulin, which leads the body to pump out more and more of it, but there may still be an unhealthy increase in blood sugar levels. Resistance to insulin is bad news for your brain. However, regular exercise can reverse this condition, and increase your insulin sensitivity, thus stabilizing your blood sugar after you eat.
What do you think? Is it time to get out and exercise, and feel all those benefits to your brain?