How exercise can lead to better brain health

We all know that taking regular exercise is important for maintaining a healthy body – but it’s just as crucial for improving your brain health, too. The idea that a healthy mind lives in a healthy body isn’t new, but as life expectancy increases (people aged 65+ are the fastest growing demographic around the world), maintaining a sharp mind is becoming increasingly talked about.

When we think of improving our brain health, we might think of eating brain-boosting foods, or playing brain games like sudoku. But the effect of physical exercise in protecting our brains and enhancing our cognitive skills can’t be minimised – so let’s explore the link between exercise and brain health.

1. How does physical exercise benefit the brain?

Before we explore the different ways that physical exercise can improve brain function and health, it’s helpful to understand exactly how this happens. There are actually many different ways that exercise impacts our brains…

Firstly, exercise increases heart rate, which causes more oxygen to be pumped to the brain. Plus, it releases hormones that aid in brain cell health, promote the survival of new brain cells, and improve the growth of blood vessels in the brain.

Another benefit of physical exercise is that it reduces insulin resistance and inflammation. This becomes especially important as we get older, because as we age, low-level inflammation tends to occur in our organs, including the brain. This low-level inflammation increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, which impair cognitive functions like memory. However, studies have shown that exercise can reprogramme ageing brains, and help to counteract inflammatory changes that can affect brain function.

Exercise can also provide tangible physical benefits to the brain – for example, improving the thickness of the cerebral cortex (the outer layer of our brain that controls functions like speech, thinking, and memory). Exercise also enhances the structure of our white matter (the brain tissue through which messages pass within the nervous system), and improves neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and make new connections.

Last but not least, exercise also lowers levels of stress hormones, which can have a powerful effect on our mood and mental health.

So, now we’ve covered some of the science behind how exercise benefits the brain, let’s delve into the different ways you can enjoy better brain health by exercising regularly.

2. Exercise can boost your memory

Keeping our memory sharp is incredibly important for most people – and multiple studies suggest that out of all the things we can do to protect our memory as we get older, getting regular exercise is the most important. Exercise is proven to prevent the loss of brain volume (which can cause reduced cognitive function) and also prevent shrinkage in the parts of the brain that are specifically linked to memory. One study using MRI scans found that just six months of exercise increased brain volume in older adults.

The part of the brain that benefits from exercise most is the hippocampus – which is responsible for long-term memory – and the results can be quite staggering. Regular exercise has been shown to ‘de-age’ the hippocampus to the point where it can appear up to 65 years younger than it really is:  a study by UC Irvine’s Memory Institute for Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND) found that adults aged 73 to 85 who took regular exercise had hippocampi comparable to much younger brains aged 20 to 59.

Other studies in both children and adults show that the hippocampus grows as people get fitter. Because the hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory, this explains how multiple studies prove that improved cardiovascular fitness can significantly improve memory. Plus, as well as improving your memory via growing your hippocampus, exercise can also give your memory an immediate boost. Studies have shown that walking while learning a foreign language makes it easier to remember new words.

If that’s not motivation enough to try to get walking more, other studies show that shrinkage of the hippocampus in older adults can actually be reversed by regular walking. If you’d like to increase how much you walk each day, you might want to check out our article, 17 creative ways to increase your daily step count.

3. Exercise can slow cognitive decline

The evidence that exercising regularly can help slow cognitive decline is equally compelling. While it’s important to note that exercise doesn’t prevent neurological illnesses like dementia or Alzheimer’s, it can shield the brain from their effects, and allow people suffering from these diseases to carry on with their daily activities for longer periods of time. Even for people who don’t suffer from neurological illnesses, cognitive decline is usually an unfortunate effect of ageing – yet how much exercise we get has a big impact in whether the ageing process is accelerated or slowed down.

“Think of your brain as a muscle,” is how Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University, begins her popular TedTalk on brain health. She goes on to explain that “the more you’re working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets. This is important because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in ageing.”

Studies show that just 30-45 minutes of brisk walking, three times a week, can help delay the onset of dementia – though it’s good to start doing this as early as possible, as the protective effects are most beneficial before the cognitive symptoms of ageing first hit. Other studies show that exercises designed to improve balance and agility also improve brain structure and cognitive function in older adults – and just two weekly sessions of weight training can result in clear benefits to the brain.

To find out more about how to improve strength and balance, you might want to read our article, The importance of building strength and balance in your 50s and 60s. If you’d like more information on how exercise can prevent cognitive decline, you may want to check out Wendy Suzuki’s full TedTalk below.

4. Exercise can enhance creativity

The idea that exercise is a catalyst for creativity certainly isn’t new. Nearly 150 years ago the famous philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche offered some advice that’s just as pertinent today: “Sit as little as possible. Do not believe any idea that was not born in the open air and of free movement — in which the muscles do not also revel.”

Nietzsche was one of many celebrated thinkers who found that their most creative moments came while they were walking; Immanuel Kant, Henry David Thoreau, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all used walking to boost their creativity – and Romanticism poets William Wordsworth and William Blake both credited country walks as their cure to writer’s block.

Now, science backs up these beliefs. A 2014 study by psychologists at Stanford University found that walking significantly improves creative thinking – particularly divergent thinking, which is the ability to create open-ended, original ideas. The study showed that walking outside opens up the free flow of ideas – and even walking on a treadmill helps creative thoughts begin to form.

Other studies have also found that exercise can improve convergent thinking (the ability to think up solutions to a problem) as well as divergent thinking (the thought process used to generate creative ideas) – especially when someone exercises at least three times a week. Throughout history, there are many examples of famous creatives who’ve cited exercise as a means for boosting their creativity: Ernest Hemingway was into boxing, Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote a book about  running, and American novelist Philip Roth believed that his daily swims were the reason he continued writing well into his 70s.

5. Exercise can improve your focus

Aside from boosting your memory and creativity, regular exercise can also improve your focus and help get rid of ‘brain fog’. Brain fog is also called ‘clouding of consciousness’, and refers to when people experience a mild degree of cognitive impairment – usually in the form of poor concentration, trouble focusing, and difficulty remembering things.

While the strongest scientific evidence uses school children as participants, it’s believed the benefits of exercise on focus and concentration apply to everyone, no matter their age. One Dutch study found that breaking lessons up with 20-minute aerobics sessions had a big impact on the attention spans of pupils – and in the US, a large study found that students who took part in daily after-school exercise classes became better at ignoring distractions, multitasking, and keeping information in the forefront of their minds.

The good news is that studies suggest you don’t have to work up much of a sweat to enjoy improved focus and attention span; just 10 minutes of laidback coordination exercise, like bouncing a ball, has been found to improve  concentration. If you’d like to find out about additional ways you can increase your concentration, you might want to read our article, 7 ways to improve your focus.

6. Exercise can improve your mood and mental health

You may have experienced that uplifting, happy feeling after a good workout or a challenging run. When we exercise, chemicals called endorphins rush to our brain, providing short-term feelings of euphoria. However, the long-term effects of exercise run much deeper than just boosting our mood temporarily; recent clinical studies show that exercise can introduce structural and functional changes in the brain, causing permanent positive effects on cognitive functioning and wellbeing. New research into the neuroscience of exercise suggests that regular physical activity alters your brain chemistry in lasting ways, positively impacting mood, attention and memory.

Exercise is also known to be an effective stress-buster, reducing levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Physical exercise that focuses on breathing, like yoga, pilates and tai chi, is known to be especially good at reducing stress and anxiety, with multiple studies backing up this theory. A 2010 study even found that people who did eight weeks of daily yoga didn’t only report lower stress levels, but brain scans revealed that sections of their amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for stress, fear and anxiety), had actually shrunk.

Exercise has also been shown to help people overcome chronic mood disorders like depression and anxiety. A 2013 meta-analysis suggested that regular exercise was just as effective at treating depression as antidepressant drugs. It’s important to note that while disorders like depression and anxiety are mostly thought of as purely psychological ailments, there’s also evidence to suggest that they may alter our brain chemistry. Because exercise has the power to change brain chemistry, it can be just as effective as prescribed medication – and unlike most antidepressants, the effects are instant. So it’s perhaps no surprise that exercise prescriptions are expected to change the face of the NHS.

Final thoughts...

Exercise isn’t a magical, cure-all prescription – but it’s probably the closest thing we have to it. Everyone benefits from regular exercise, and the effects it has on our brain and mental health are just as powerful as the benefits on our physical health. Exercise can keep us feeling calmer and happier, protect our brains against ageing, improve memory and focus, and even enhance creativity.

The good news is that there isn’t one specific form of exercise that boosts your brain health – and you don’t need to be running marathons to reap the rewards. All exercise is beneficial, so go at your own pace – and if you’re not used to regular exercise, start off small and increase the amount you exercise by five or ten minutes each week. If you’d like more ideas for how to get exercising, check out our article, 11 fitness motivation ideas for winter – and to find out more about health and fitness in general, head over to the Healthy Body section of our website.

Do you exercise regularly – and if so, have you noticed the benefits on your brain? We’d love to hear about your experiences. Leave us a comment below or join the conversation over on the health section of the Rest Less community forum.

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