What Happens to the Brain during Exercise

With all the gyms closed, you may be tempted to take a break from your regular workout routine. But you really should resist that temptation.

The benefits of exercise go beyond just staying strong and slender. Studies are beginning to show that exercise is one of the simplest, most effective ways to keep your brain sharp. In fact, some studies suggest that lifestyle interventions may be critical in helping stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s. Not to mention how exercise can improve your mental state, which we all could use some help with right now.

You may be wondering, what happens to the brain when we exercise that’s so beneficial? The answer has a bit of ambiguity to it. While scientists aren’t able to pinpoint one exact reason why exercise is so beneficial to brain health, countless studies have found a wide range of positive effects that exercise has on the brain.

How Exercise Affects the Brain

We know that exercise improves blood flow to the brain. About a third of the brain is made up of blood vessels alone. It’s no wonder that substantial blood flow is important to brain health. In fact, increased blood flow to the brain correlates with better cognitive function, improved memory, and overall protection against decline.

Increased blood flow also increases the amount of oxygen sent to the brain. Because the brain uses about 20% of our bodies’ total oxygen supply, it’s important it gets a sufficient amount.

Furthermore, exercise causes our brains to release an array of beneficial chemicals. Norepinephrine can be released, which can help improve attention, perception, and motivation. Exercise can cause a release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDFN), which can help protect and repair neurons from degeneration. “Feel-good” chemicals are released too, like serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. These chemicals can dull the sensation of pain, improve mood, and help support better sleep.

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But it doesn’t stop there. It’s possible for exercise to go so far as to change the physical structure of your brain. One area that can be particularly affected is the hippocampus. This area is critical for learning and memory, but it also has a unique ability to generate new neurons daily. Neurons are an indicator of a healthy brain, so the more you have, the more you want to keep.

One study examined the relationship between regular aerobic exercise and brain health in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment. It found that the hippocampus grew significantly larger in the participants who took up consistent, regular exercise.

Best Exercises for Brain Health

If you’re sold on exercising for brain health but don’t know what to do, there’s good news. Essentially, any kind of exercise can benefit your brain.

Aerobic exercise (walking, running, etc.) has been linked to improvement in cognitive function and memory. Resistance training (weight lifting) may improve executive function – skills that help with time management, focus, and organization. Yoga and tai chi may help lower cortisol, decrease blood pressure, and improve mood and cognition.

Another great option is dance. Studies have linked dance to reducing stress, increased serotonin, and new neural connections. This is especially true in areas of the brain associated with long-term memory, executive function, and spatial recognition. This may be in part due to the need to remember steps, count, and move mindfully all at once.

So, don’t be afraid to start moving even if you’re not “athletic.” Something as simple as a walk is a great way to start getting used to being more active. Or sample a few exercise videos on YouTube to see what you’re most drawn to. The most important thing is picking an activity that you enjoy and will stick with even after the quarantine is over.

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Sifferlin, Alexandra. (2017, April 26). “The Simple Reason Exercise Enhances Your Brain.” Retrieved from https://time.com/4752846/exercise-brain-health/

Park, Alice. (2014, July 14). “To Prevent Alzheimer’s, Diet and Exercise Are Effective, Large Study Shows.” Retrieved from https://time.com/2982908/to-prevent-alzheimers-diet-and-exercise-are-effective-large-study-shows/?iid=sr-link1

Godman, Heidi. (2018, April 5). “Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills.” Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110