by Christine Hanchett
We all know that exercise is important for maintaining a healthy body weight and gaining muscle, but did you know that exercise is good for your brain as well? To be more specific, it is actually cardio exercise that has been shown to be great for the brain. That is not to say that anaerobic exercise isn’t good for the brain—it’s just that there hasn’t been too many clinical studies to conclude one way or another yet. But there has been a lot of research into cardiovascular exercise and improved cognition and brain plasticity. So as to the specific reasons for the cardio exercise being good for the brain, here are the five main benefits:
Sends More Oxygen to the Brain
Physical exercise increases breathing and heart rate, sending more blood to your brain. The extra oxygen and glucose you receive from the improved blood circulation is used for enhanced energy production and waste removal. Exercise can actually make cerebral blood vessels grow, even in people of an older age. Walking is one of the best exercises you can do for your brain; you get the increased blood circulation and because it is not as strenuous as running, for instance, you do not get a buildup of oxygen and glucose in your leg muscles.
Stimulates Growth of Neural Connections and Cells
Exercise aids in the release of hormones, particularly those that aid in the growth and nourishment of new brain cells. New connections are also able to grow between important cortical areas of the brain. The growth of new neural cells (neurogenesis) and new connections between cells allows your brain to have what is called “plasticity.” Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to reorganize neural pathways. These types of changes occur when we learn something new or memorize new information. Research supports the idea that if someone experiences a brain injury, plasticity allows another part of the brain to actually adapt itself to be able to perform the duties of the injured part!
Exercise not only makes you look better, it can make you smarter as well! The increased blood flow to your brain from your increased heart rate can improve your memory, learning ability, concentration, executive functioning (planning, organization, the ability to mentally juggle several different tasks at once, etc) and abstract reasoning. To really improve your brain, take some ballroom dance classes; you’ll be getting the brain benefits of exercise and improving your cognition mentally (by having to remember the steps) at the same time!
Reduces Effects of Stress
When you are stressed, cortisol levels in your brain become higher, leading to slow, scattered thinking, impaired learning, and forgetfulness. High levels of cortisol can increase blood sugar and suppress the immune system. If prolonged, it can lead to muscle wasting (atrophy). Exercising helps to lower your cortisol levels, leading to clearer and faster thinking again.
Protection Against Diseases
Studies have shown that physical exercise can have a protective effect on the brain against diseases such as Alzheimer’s. The more an individual exercises, the less likely he or she is to develop dementia or lose their mental abilities. Even light or moderate exercisers reduce their risk for mental decline significantly. Risk of stroke is also cut in half for those who spend at least twenty minutes a day exercising. Interestingly, the positive effects of exercise against age-related diseases are shown to be particularly beneficial for women.
With all of these mental benefits in addition to the obvious physical benefits, why are you still reading this? Get your butt down to the gym—now!
Image credit: Bruno Hotz