We often think about the benefits of exercise as it relates to our heart, lungs, muscles and bones, and our weight management, but less often do we address how exercise can benefit our brain. Exercise has been shown to benefit our overall cognitive function, particularly as we age.1 In what ways can exercise improve our cognitive capabilities?
- Improves learning. The hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for long-term memory and spatial navigation. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce the rate of shrinkage of both the hippocampal and temporal lobes of the brain, leading to improved memory later in life (and reduced rates of alzheimer’s).2,3
- Helps reduce stress, anxiety, and depression.
While the exact mechanisms remain unclear, exercise can improve mood and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.3,4 Cardiovascular forms of exercise (i.e. running, swimming, biking, etc.) have been shown to be the most beneficial for relieving stress and improving mood, and a duration of at least 20 minutes as been shown to provide the most benefit.5
- Help maintain and regenerate nerve cells. Exercise increases the function of the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)6, which is a protein that creates the protein responsible for the survival of neurons and their growth, maturation, and maintenance. Neurons are responsible for sending and receiving signals to and from the brain, and are responsible for interpreting information from our environment and coordinating movement. Regular exercise improves the function of both neurons and BDNF.
- Boosts “feel-good” hormones. Exercise increases production of endorphins7, a hormone produced by the body that is responsible for reducing pain and can cause a “euphoric” feeling in the body. Additionally, some studies have found a difference in endorphin levels between trained and untrained individuals.8 The response is greater at higher overall intensities—suggesting that as our performance improves we develop an increased capacity for extreme levels of stress.
There are more benefits to be gained from regular exercise than improvements in strength and body composition. The benefits of exercise extend far beyond what we typically think of as improvements in our health.