Exercise for brain health: What does exercise do?


Physical exercise is one of the most vital tasks everyone needs to perform to keep fit. Exercise can improve your overall health, including cardiovascular health. Physical exercise is also crucial for brain health– increases the Hippocampal size and volume. Moreover, the prefrontal cortex and medial prefrontal cortex volume is more in those who exercise regularly than those who don’t. The cerebral cortex thickness increases with exercise and also strengthens the integrity of white and gray matter of the brain.

Exercise for emotional brain health

Physical exercise improves mood and overall psychological health. On the other hand, it helps maintain independence and social relations with fun and entertainment. The primary reason for this effect is an increase in Serotonin (the mood stabilizer) and norepinephrine hormone production.

Depression is the primary focus of mental illnesses. Reports suggest people who exercise regularly have less or no depression compared to those who don’t. The conclusions of these reports lean towards exercise for the treatment of mental illnesses, which also includes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. 

The improvements in emotional wellbeing is more in the long run. You don’t benefit from small sessions. Sixteen weeks of aerobic exercise improves symptoms of depression in major depressive disorder. Besides, there are reports of enhanced clinical depression with anaerobic exercises. Yoga and others with abdominal breathing are among the proven methods for emotional health.

Regardless of the nature of the exercise, the intensity makes a difference. The intensity prescribed depends on the need and not on the client’s preferred rate. Oxidative stress (presence of free radicals causing unnecessary oxidation) is a feature of mental illnesses. Physical exercise, especially high intensity, helps decrease the oxidative stress and subsequently improve overall health. 

Physical exercise increases the personality of an individual, increasing their capacity to manage and cope with stress and anxiety. In contrast, no physical activity relates to worse emotional symptoms and reduced brain-related neurotrophic factors (BDNF) production.

Exercise for the addictive brain

A low volume of the prefrontal cortex is a feature of unhealthy behaviors and addiction. They express impaired cognition, i.e, they face difficulties exhibiting the inhibitory control over such behavior.

Because exercise can help revert these conditions, it is among the treatments of addictive behavior. It can increase the volume of the prefrontal cortex and maintain the internal inhibitory control, subsequently improving brain health. It reduces food craving and satiety, reducing the risk of eating disorders and obesity.

Moreover, it helps increase healthy behavior. Studies proved that it highly benefits substance abusers as it also releases Dopamine. Reports also suggest that this effect helps reduce alcohol and tobacco craving. 

Only one negative impact of exercise for an addictive brain is “exercise addiction”. It is a condition in which the person experiences withdrawal symptoms– anxiety, depression, sweating, aggression– which arises after 24-36 hr of no exercise.

Exercise for overall brain health

Exercise reduces the risk of Dementia for upto 30% and delays the risk by fifteen years. This delay is because physical activity inhibits the aging of neural cells. A professionally recommended treatment for Alzheimer’s disease also includes regular exercise. Although diets like Medittarian diet and heart-healthy diets for hypertension control can also improve brain health, only aerobic exercise in the diet regime proves an improvement in memory and concentration.

This impact is because exercise creates alternate connections in the brain (Hippocampal region), which translates to more volume and memory retaining ability. Moreover, levels of neutrophins (chemicals that improve brain health) increase.

Neurogenesis is another interpretation of the benefits of physical exercise. Our heart rate and breathing increase while exercising. The consequence is more oxygen supply to the brain. This supply induces neural growth involving cognition, subsequently increasing the total brain volume.

Cardio or aerobic exercise can induce neurogenesis. A professionally recommended duration of training is 150 minutes per week (or) 75 minutes of heavy exercise per week.

Role in memory and attention

Reports also suggest that students who exercise regularly perform better academically. This improvement is due to the blood circulation in neural circuits of the cognitive brain. Exercise also improves the size and volume of the brain along with efficiency.

The improvements in memory and attention are mostly because of brain modifications. It is influenced by brain maturation. Exercise with lifestyle and environmental factors primarily controls cognition. Hence, it is always best to maintain an enriched lifestyle, at least until midlife. It also helps create reserves, which are most useful in old age, because it helps retain memories.

Aerobic vs. anaerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise induces additional synthesis of Adenosine triphosphate (ATP), per the duration and intensity. High heart rate and maximum oxygen consumption are characters of high-intensity aerobic workout. As the name suggests, it is an oxygen-dependent activity– for instance, cycling, running, and swimming.

In contrast, anaerobic exercise includes workout with oxygen depletion. This intensity also uses up all the ATP present in the system, shifting the source of energy to lactic acid. Weight lifting and yoga are examples of anaerobic exercises.

However, recent evidence suggests that aerobic exercise improves cognition and emotional well-being. The prefrontal cortex benefits the most of aerobic exercise. Although a single bout can benefit cognition, it is generally small.

With the debates of anaerobic and aerobic exercise benefits, the most crucial parameter is the intensity of the workout. Low intensity improves brain flexibility, and high intensity enhances the efficiency of the neural connections. Moreover, the inducement of BDNF increases with high-intensity exercise.

Related: Why is exercise among the best treatments of Alzheimer’s disease?

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