How exercise affects your brain

How Exercise Affects Your Brain

Research on movement and its specific effects on the brain has evolved to the point where we can now identify the types of movement-based exercise that are best for each specific brain area. The different physical exercises can then be correlated to specific mental gains, from improving memory to dealing with cravings to reducing stress.

We all want to continue expanding our ability to help clients with a variety of conditions and goals, and this information sheds light on ways to personalize exercise-based programs to not only help them reach their goals, but to help them become happier and healthier in the process.

That the brains of exercisers appear different from those of their more sedentary counterparts is not a new revelation. We’ve been hearing for years that exercise – especially aerobic exercise – is medicine for the mind. Physical fitness has been shown to slow the cognitive decline associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and depression, and we know this is at least in part because getting the blood pumping brings more oxygen, growth factors, hormones and nutrients to the brain, leading it – like the muscles, lungs and heart – to grow stronger and more efficient.

But a new chapter is now being written in our understanding of how physical exercise influences cognition as researchers discover specific effects that correlate to different kinds of exercise. In particular, they’ve found that 1) high-intensity intervals, 2) aerobic exercise, 3) weight training, 4) yoga and 5) sports drills each affect a different area of the brain.

In light of these discoveries, researchers are looking beyond the standard recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate, daily aerobic exercise for brain health. They’re now asking if there are benefits to going slower or faster, or to lifting weights or performing sun salutations.

But based on what we now know, you can be sure that whether you need to stay focused for an exam, calm your mind, or quit smoking, there’s an exercise prescription for you.

Lifting weights helps improve complex thoughts, problem-solving and multi-tasking

The first clue that exercise affects the brain came from rodent studies 15 years ago, which showed that allowing mice access to a running wheel led to a boost in neuron formation in their hippocampi, areas of the brain essential for memory. That’s because exercise causes hippocampal neurons to pump out a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons. The mice showed improvements in memory that allowed them to navigate mazes better.

The findings were soon translated to humans. Older adults who did aerobic exercise three times a week for a year also grew larger hippocampi and performed better in memory tests. Those with the highest levels of BDNF in their blood had the biggest increases in this brain region.

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