10 ways exercise keeps your brain young and healthy

Delia Lighter Brighter You Blog

Researchers are uncovering how exercise keeps our brain young an healthy and analyzing walking women (and men) provided some solid evidence. Walking for even an hour-and-a-half a week, helped active women to outperform less active women on cognitive assessments. The study’s author was surprised at this result, as walking seemed to be a pretty non-strenuous activity, yet held real cognitive benefits.

They also found that those women in the study who walked for two or more miles (3.2 km and upwards) per day were half as likely to develop dementia as those that walked less than a quarter of a mile (0.4 km) a day. The conclusion to this study seemed to indicate that people, who are more active, are also healthier in other areas of their lives, such as their diet, which combine to create an optimal environment for them to maintain healthy cognitive function.

Focusing on men, other researchers found that walking was also associated with them experiencing a reduced risk of getting dementia.

But don’t rush into starting a new exercise habit …

People who are not fit and start exercising vigorously, are at greater risk of having a heart attack, because their blood has a tendency to clot due to the increased physical activity of the body.

As you increase your exercise ability slowly, your blood starts to thin, the tendency for the blood to clot is reduced, and then you reduce the risk of having a heart attack. So try to start off walking, and being capable of having a conversation with ease.

You can slowly increase your walking speed, ultimately being able to walk very fast and increase your heart rate, which is great for your brain. Of course, this is assuming that you are also changing your diet, which is essential, and which will make it easier for your body to handle the exercise that you are now doing.

10 ways that exercise helps your brain directly:

  1. You reduce the risk of getting type 2 diabetes, which is a risk factor for both depression and Alzheimer’s
  2. You increase your learning and memory ability and reduce the risk of getting depression and anxiety, especially in the aging brain
  3. Exercise facilitates "plasticity" wonderfully, so your brain is primed to learn and change its structure when you exercise
  4. Interestingly, exercise that increases your heart rate also increases your ability to pay attention, which in turn increases the chances of you being able to recall what you are learning
  5. Exercise also reduces other risks, such as heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, which can lead to cognitive decline in and of themselves
  6. Exercise offers the potential to restore some of the cognitive function that has been lost due to normal aging
  7. Exercise may enhance some cognitive functions specifically, especially in the hippocampus, which is one of the main memory centers in your brain, as well as in the frontal cortex, which is the management centre that oversees your decision-making, rational and long-term based thought processes
  8. Exercise also helps your brain to produce energy more efficiently, which means that it’s easier for it to work well
  9. There is some evidence that exercise may offer a protective function against Parkinson’s disease
  10. Moderate exercise reduces levels of stress within the body

Your heart and brain and exercise – more reasons to exercise!

Your heart benefits from exercise as it works harder and becomes stronger by pumping more blood and oxygen because of the demands placed on it by your muscles due to your physical movement.

When you exercise there is more blood, and therefore more oxygen pumped throughout your body, including your brain, and more oxygen in your brain means more well-nourished neurons and therefore better creation of energy in your brain.

This is one of the reasons why extensive research has shown that what is good for your heart is good for your brain. Therefore, when you exercise you lower your risk of getting:

  • heart disease
  • depression
  • diabetes
  • hypertension

which – combined, or separately – contribute to brain dysfunction and neuro-degeneration, or the death of neurons.

Your muscles help your brain too

When you exercise, chemicals are sent from your working muscles to your bloodstream, from where they move into your brain. These chemicals increase the production of another very important chemical, called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which acts like fertiliser for your neurons, encouraging them to stay healthy and keep growing and even helping to grow new neurons.

This special chemical BDNF, also seems to be responsible for all the processes that underlie more complex thinking. When you exercise regularly, your brain builds up reserves of BDNF, and your neurons start to branch out, joining together and forming new connections.

This branching out and forming of new connections between neurons, is what underlies learning new knowledge – every new connection made between your neurons is a sign of a new skill or fact or name that you have learned, and that you are putting into storage for future use. So, brains with more BDNF have a greater capacity for learning new things.

Blood vessels need exercise to stay strong

Exercising helps your blood vessels stay strong and healthy, thus protecting against burst blood vessels in the brain, which, among other serious conditions, can lead to vascular dementia. Your brain's blood vessels are stronger and more resilient against general aging when you are a regular exerciser.

You should be quite convinced to get your sneakers out now and go for a brisk walk. Even if you think your energy levels are low, just go for a walk, and notice how you feel when your body is moving, blood is pumping through your body and your brain is getting some extra oxygen.

References

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Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Raz N, Webb AG, Cohen NJ, McAuley E, Kramer AF. Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in aging humans. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2003 Feb; 58(2).

Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Scalf PE, Kim JS, Prakash R, McAuley E, Elavsky S, Marquez DX, Hu L, Kramer AF. Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2006 Nov; 61(11).

Colcombe SJ, Kramer AF, Arickson KI, Scalf P, McAuley E, Cohen NJ, Webb A, Jerome GJ, Marquez DX, Elavsky S. Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2004 Mar 2; 101(9).

Cotman CW, Berchtold NC, Christie LA. Exercise builds brain health: key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. Trends Neurosci 2007 Sep; 30(9).

Cotman CW, Berchtold NC. Exercise: a behavioural intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends Neurosci 2002 Jun; 25(6).

Hawkins HL, Kramer AF, Capaldi D. Aging, exercise, and attention. Psychol Aging 1992 Dec; 7(4).

Hillman CH, Erickson KI, Kramer AF. Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nat Rev Neurosci 2008 Jan; 9(1).