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Why Exercise Is Good for Your Brain Health

Did you know it’s possible your brain is bigger because you exercise regularly?

You may currently be exercising because you’re seeking stronger muscles, a more powerful cardiovascular system, or a long and activity-filled life. But it’s entirely possible you’re racking up brain health benefits in the process, even if you don’t realize it (although we’re willing to bet you’d notice if your brain was not as sharp).

This includes brain health benefits like:

  • Increased memory
  • Improved focus
  • Improved mood
  • Improved sleep
  • Improved decision-making
  • Decreased stress and anxiety

So, let’s take a few minutes to look at why this happens, and then how you can plan your exercise to not only build muscles and endurance, but a bigger, stronger brain, too.

How Does Exercise Help Brain Health?

According to Heidi Godman, executive editor at the Harvard Health Letter, “Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.”

Additionally, a 2014 study conducted at the University of British Columbia showed that aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus. The hippocampus plays a vital role in our memory, in particular the transfer of short-term memory to long-term memory and also the kind of spacial memory that allows us to successfully move around (which is important for both our training and our everyday life).

Researchers believe the increase in blood flow to our brain is one of the keys to exercise being beneficial to brain health. In addition, many of us experience that when we exercise regularly we sleep better. And when we sleep better, we recover better—and that goes for all parts of our body, including our brain.

Additionally, a 2016 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise demonstrated that as little as a twenty-minute session of moderate-intensity cycling improved brain health by alleviating the symptoms of ADHD. And a 2015 study found that higher levels of physical activity correlated with lower levels of depressive symptoms.

A particular protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is important to know about when it comes to this discussion of brain health. BDNF helps repair and protect brain cells, and it also triggers the growth of new neurons. While why and how BDNF works is not completely understood, we do know it’s released when we exercise. This is one of the reasons you’ll find that children’s fitness coaches often suggest kids get out their homework right after an exercise session. (This is also why those precious minutes of recess in school were actually far more beneficial for us than we realized.)

And if you have someone in your life who thinks they’re too old to start exercising, science says it’s never too late to exercise for the brain health benefits. Numerous studies have shown the positive impact of exercise on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other degenerative brain conditions.

What Kind of Exercise Is Best for Brain Health?

A meta-analysis (a study of a collection of existing studies on a certain topic) conducted by the  British Journal of Sports Medicine, looked at 39 different studies that examined the relationship between brain health and exercise. The researchers found aerobic exercise improved cognitive function while resistance training improved memory and executive function (things like impulse control, attentional control, and the ability to focus). Exercises like tai chi were also found to be beneficial. Additionally, a 2006 study found that aerobic fitness played a strong role in “maintaining and enhancing central nervous system health and cognitive functioning.”

While the science seems to favor aerobic exercise, it’s probably smart to include a variety of modes of training to achieve the most robust brain health. Do your best to achieve a combination of intensity levels in addition to performing both strength and endurance training. Because what we can say for sure is that regular exercise yields the best brain health results.

Build a Bigger Brain with Regular Exercise

Exercise isn’t just about strength, endurance, health, and longevity when it comes to the function of our bodies—it’s also vital to both the short-term and long-term function of our brains. And we can start earning these benefits at any age.

So, go have a great workout today—your mind will thank you for it.

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