“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” … And so does exercise!
We’ve all heard about how exercise impacts our physical health in endless ways by strengthening our hearts and increasing blood flow, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. And we’ve recently begun to hear about the psychological effects of exercise on mental health! We know that exercise is important for our health. But what’s really important to understand is the power of our brain and its ability to actually change in its physiology, anatomy, and functioning due to exercise.
The brain is a powerful tool
Think of the brain as a muscle… if you regularly exercise a muscle, it will continue to grow, and become stronger and stronger. Well, the same goes for the brain and exercise! The brain is ever-changing and continues to grow as we “work it out.” In fact, everything that we experience leaves a mark on our brains. Experiences lasting just a moment such as your first heartbreak or receiving a promotion at work that turn into long-lasting memories influence change in your brain. It even goes beyond this — experiences can change our genetic make-up. Our brain even has the ability to recover from experiences that were highly stressful or damaging.
What does the brain have to do with exercise?
So, we know that exercise is good for us… But do you ever wonder how it all really works?
When we learn something new, the neurons in our brain that are used during the learning process begin to grow, form new connections, and promote brain plasticity — sometimes your brain will even produce brand new neurons. Taking medication may induce similar changes, and so does exercise. When we exercise, we enhance the activity of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (an area located right behind your forehead responsible for decision-making, attention, and personality). As well, physical exercise promotes the brain to produce brain cells in a place called the hippocampus (a brain area located deep into the temporal lobe responsible for creating and retaining memories). When new brain cells are produced in the hippocampus, its volume increases and long-term memory abilities improve. Therefore, the more we exercise, the more the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex grow and become stronger!
Why is this so important? Well, the two most important parts of the brain in the development of neurodegenerative diseases and in aging are the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. This doesn’t mean that when you exercise, you won’t develop these conditions nor age (we could only dream!). Instead, exercise helps us build a protective shield for our brains against the effects of these conditions. It will take longer for these effects to transpire.
Exercise not only offers us beneficial short-term effects of increased mood and sleep quality, and decreased anxiety, stress, and fatigue. It also offers us long-lasting results such as improved attention and mental health, stronger bones and muscles, and reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases. Most importantly, exercise acts as a protective factor for our brains from several diseases and conditions, thus increasing resilience in illness and a longer lifespan.
Put it to the test
How much exercise do I need? In order to improve your brain and obtain optimal protection for your brain, you may want to aim for about 30 minutes of exercise, three to four times per week. Try to incorporate aerobic exercises that increase your heart rate. As the weather begins to cool down for fall, take this message as your encouragement to get outside today and work out your body and brain!
Interested in learning more about optimizing your brain function? Click here to read about the different types of neurofeedback treatments we offer!