Your Brain on Exercise

If you read the BWS Newsletter even occasionally, it should be no surprise that exercise improves your health. Besides promoting a healthy body weight and helping maintain weight loss, regular exercise may also help reduce risk for chronic disease. For example, increased insulin sensitivity and HDL cholesterol from exercise give you a potent risk reduction for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. And without medication! If you need another reason to start and stick with an exercise routine, do it for your brain! Research shows that regular exercise changes parts of the brain’s structure, which can result in improved thinking and attention span along with a lower risk of cognitive decline.

Avid exercisers will happily tell you about their boost in mood and energy levels following a vigorous workout. Exercise reduces stress hormones and increases levels of feel-good endorphins. These endorphins circulate in the body and provide an immediate lift in mood, focus, attention, and reaction time that lasts two or more hours. Although considered short-term effects, these changes can help prevent problems that contribute to cognitive impairment in the future. Even better, brain benefits from exercise don’t stop here!

People who exercise can have greater volume in brain regions that tend to diminish in size and function as we age. One, called the hippocampus, acts as the brain’s “memory gateway,” responsible for turning short-term memories into long-term memories, spatial memory, and navigation. The other, called the prefrontal cortex, regulates decision making, personality, and attention span. One reason researchers believe our brains lose volume and function over time is related to decreased blood flow in older age—especially in the previously mentioned regions. A decrease in volume is a change known to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, a form of cognitive decline. However, exercise can help protect your brain from this effect.

Exercise supports the health of existing brain cells and the addition of new cells, primarily in the brain’s memory region. Here, growth can outpace the number of cells that don’t survive daily. Thanks to the fact that exercise sends a rush of nutrient-rich blood to all parts of the body and brain, you promote the formation of new neurons (brain cells) which can provide a boost in size. More blood flow also seems to cause the release of chemicals that positively influence learning and memory and regulate the maintenance, survival, and growth of neurons. Exercise can also boost activity in certain parts of the brain. In the prefrontal cortex, this may lead to a longer attention span and better decision-making. Over time, exercise enhancements provide better neural plasticity, memory formation, and memory retention.

The brain benefits of exercise don’t require a personal training certification! At a minimum, aim to reach the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. That’s 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or higher aerobic activity each week in addition to muscle-strengthening activities twice per week. Any activity that increases your heart rate and breathing rate for a sustained period can count as an aerobic activity. The more vigorous your exercise, the less you need.

Spending some time strengthening your brain and body now might mean it will take even longer for cognitive decline, dementia, and other chronic illnesses to affect you later in life. Think of exercise as a lifestyle 401K; invest a small portion of your day in exercise to ensure a future happy, healthy, and spontaneous lifestyle! Research shows that it’s never too late to start experiencing the benefits of exercise. How will you stay active?

Want another way to protect your brain from cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s Disease? Read about the clinically studied MIND Diet.

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