Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Why working out increases your brain health.
Boost your brain power with exercise. How exercise affects your brain.
Over and over again it is shown that people who exercise positively change the structures in their brains.That is specifically the neurons in their brain change shape, they release proteins and other molecules from muscle fat and liver tissue that leads to the development of new neuron growth (Willeumier, 2020) (Marmeleira, 2013).
Exercise also speeds up new-neuron maturation, the process known as neurogenesis. Specifically the generation of new neurons in the adult hippocampus, the area of the brain that assists with memory formation and spatial tasks (Ploughman, 2008) (Willeumier, 2020) (Marmeleira, 2013).
The process of neurogenesis requires some form of aerobic activity and its study was first pioneered by Fred Gauge. This research demonstrated that the mice with use of a running wheel were able to develop new motor neurones in particular an increased density of motor neurons in the hippocampus (Marmeleira, 2013)(Willeumier, 2020) (van Praag , Shubert, Zhao , Gage, 2005).
Further to the benefit of neurogenesis exercise also promotes brain vascularization, meaning that blood flow is increased within the brain.In order to get blood deep inside this vascular network the heart needs to pump blood efficiently. What does exercise do? It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. The more blood you can pump to your brain the more you provide it with oxygen, glucose and the better able it is to remove toxins. This all leads to improvements in cognition and learning (van Praag, 2009).
There are a number of mechanisms which support vascularization of the brain and not all are clearly understood. However what is clear is that vascularition supports optimal brain functioning and helps deter neurodegenerative disorders, starving off cognitive decline (van Praag , Shubert, Zhao , Gage, 2005) (van Praag, 2009). Therefore working out in any capacity is helpful. So even if you don't have time for your usual workout, a brief walk may suffice in boosting your brain health.
Different types of exercise can have different effects of your brain health so whilst cardiovascular exercise such as walking and running can be seen to support the process of neurogenesis, resistance exercises are beneficial to reduce pressure on arterial walls of your brain.
How you may ask? Resistance training builds muscle strength and increases the areas your body has to pump blood to decrease arterial pressure (Zhang, Behbehani & Levine, 2009).
So what specifically is resistance exercise you may ask? It is exercise that increases the strength of the muscle usually working against a force or resistance or weight. So things like Pilates and lifting weights are key examples of resistance training.
On top of all these cognitive bonuses that result from exercise, it also enables better management of cortisol. Cortisol is our body's stress hormone that helps your body deal with stressful situations and in low doses does not negatively impact your health. It is when cortisol levels are too high for too long, this hormone can harm you (Willeumier, 2020).
Over time, high levels of cortisol can lead to weight gain, high blood pressure, disrupt sleep, negatively impact mood, reduce your energy levels and contribute to diabetes (Willeumier, 2020).
Whilst intense exercise increases cortisol in the short term due to stress it places on the body, it decreases it again by the evening. That being said chronic exercise can have the opposite effect on the body in terms of cortisol production so finding balance is the key (Petruzzello, Landers,Hatfield,Kubitz, & Salazar, 1991).
Increased levels of cortisol can boost the formation of memories, however they hinder their recall. With research indicating that people with high cortisol levels find it more challenging to retrieve specific memories and information (Petruzzello, Landers,Hatfield,Kubitz, & Salazar, 1991). So it is essential to keep your cortisol levels in check to make sure your cortisol levels do not hinder your recall performance.
So time to get out there and get moving.
Marmeleira, J. (2013). An examination of the mechanisms underlying the effects of physical activity on brain and cognition. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act 10, 83–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11556-012-0105-5
Michelle Ploughman (2008) Exercise is brain food: The effects of physical activity on cognitive function, Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 11:3, 236-240, DOI: 10.1080/17518420801997007
Petruzzello, S. J., Landers, D. M., Hatfield, B. D., Kubitz, K. A., & Salazar, W. (1991). A meta-analysis on the anxiety-reducing effects of acute and chronic exercise. Sports medicine, 11(3), 143-182.
Willeumier, K. (2020). ‘Biohack your brain’, Harper Collins. Retrieved from: https://www.amazon.com/Biohack-Your-Brain-Cognitive-Performance/dp/0062994328 (Accessed: 12 Feb 2020).
van Praag H, Shubert T, Zhao C, Gage FH (2005) Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. J Neurosci 25(38):8680–8685. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1731-05.2005
van Praag, H (2009) Exercise and the brain: something to chew on.Trends in Neurosciences,
Volume 32, Issue 5,Pages 283-290,ISSN 0166-2236. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2008.12.007.
Zhang, R., Behbehani, K., & Levine, B. D. (2009). Dynamic pressure–flow relationship of the cerebral circulation during acute increase in arterial pressure. The Journal of physiology, 587(11), 2567-2577.