Exercise and the brain
The brain is the most complex structure in our body. We as clinicians like to think that we mostly understand the body. It is common knowledge that exercise is the key to maintaining a healthy body – strong muscles, bones and tendons – better lung capacity, a more efficient heart. But what effect does exercise have on your brain?
The problem is that we don’t truly understand the brain. It’s like an alien piece of technology that we prod and poke, seeing how it reacts to different things. Some parts make sense, some parts don’t yet.
So what do we know now? Let’s pick three big ways for today.
1. It makes us feel good. When we exercise we encourage the production of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that make us feel good. As we evolved as humans, physical activity was a necessary component of survival. So it makes sense that being active rewards our brains with an incentive to continue doing so. These rewards come in the form of hormones that make us feel happy, help us deal with stress, and reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms. We often hear about the chemicals serotonin and dopamine in relation to depression, which are crucial to our brains wellbeing. Recently though focus has been shifted to a depletion of Glutamate and GABA seen in those with depression. It has been observed that stores of these two chemicals are replenished with high intensity training such as running!
2. It makes us think clearer. There are studies showing a direct correlation between exercise and immediate effects on cognition. Part of the suggested reason for this is that exercise increases the blood flow to the brain. More blood equals more oxygen which means better function. Research has also shown increased activity in the hippocampus when we exercise. This part of the brain is critical for learning and memory. We can see growth in this area in active individuals and less shrinkage as they age. Speaking of ageing….
3.It staves off neurological diseases and improves cognition. Exercise has been demonstrated to decrease the risk of Dementia and Parkinson’s disease significantly. Particularly noticeable in those who are active throughout their early lives. This is because exercise is neuroprotective – we lose less of our brain matter and retain function for longer when we are physically active. While prevention is always the best strategy it’s never too late when it comes to brain health. Research has shown improvement in cognition in those who already have neurological diseases. Often their function can be improved dramatically, along with their quality of life!
So – there are 3 big reasons why you should start exercises today. The best part about it – it’s free!