How Physical Exercise Improves Your Brain Function Education
The brain is often described as being “like a muscle”. It’s a comparison that supports the brain training industry and keeps school kids hunched over desks. We believe that literacy and arithmetic exercises are more beneficial for your brain than running, playing, and learning on the move.
But the brain-muscle analogy doesn’t quite work. To develop your biceps, you cannot avoid flexing them. When it comes to your brain, an oblique approach can be surprisingly effective. In particular, working the muscles in your body can really benefit your brainpower.
Scientists show that the euphoria of the runner and the tranquility of the yogi have profound effects on your brain. In addition, specific physical activities can significantly alter its structure in a precise manner.
A wave of studies exploring the unexpected links between physical and mental form is emerging from the labs. This research might inspire you to become more active. It can also help you choose the best ways to prepare yourself physically for mental challenges such as exams, interviews, and creative projects.
Boost your memory
The part of the brain that reacts strongly to aerobic exercise is the hippocampus. Well-controlled experiments in children, adults and the age show that this brain structure grows as people improve. Since the hippocampus is at the heart of the brain’s learning and memory systems, this discovery partly explains the memory booster effects of better cardiovascular condition.
In addition to slowly improving your memory equipment, exercise can have a more immediate impact on memory training. German researchers have shown that while walking or cycling during, but not before, the learning helped the new foreign language vocabulary catch on. So exercise while you study. Don’t push too hard, however: vigorous workouts can increase your stress levels, which can sabotage your memory circuits.
Improve your concentration
Besides making memories stickier, exercise can help you focus and stay focused on your task. The best scientific evidence comes from tests on schoolchildren, but the same probably applies to all of us. Intersperse lessons with 20-minute periods of aerobic-style exercise improved the attention span of Dutch pupils. Meanwhile, a large randomized controlled trial in the United States looked at the effects of daily after-school sports classes on a school year. The kids, of course, got fitter. Less predictably, their improved executive control. They have become more adept at ignoring distractions, multitasking, and holding and manipulating information in their minds.
And if it all sounds like hard work, you might not have to run out of breath to reap the attention-sharpening effects of exercise. Only 10 minutes of playful coordination, like bouncing two balls at the same time, enhanced the attention of a large group of German teens.
Improve your mental health
Love it or hate it, periods of physical activity can have powerful effects on your mood. The runner’s euphoria – that exhilarating feeling that follows intense exercise – is real. Even mice get it. However, this may not be due to an “endorphin rush”. The body’s levels of homemade opiates increase in the bloodstream, but it is not known exactly how much endorphin actually enters the brain. Instead, recent evidence points to a pleasurable, pain-relieving experience triggering of the endocannabinoid system: the psychoactive receptor of cannabis.
What about yoga? Does it really help with stress? As anxiety levels rise, you contract, your heart races, and your attention cracks down to a slit. This switch to “fight or flight” mode is automatic, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally out of your control. Yoga teaches the deliberate control of movement and breathing, with the aim of activating the body “Relaxation response”. Science increasingly supports this claim. For example, a 2010 study subjected participants to eight weeks of daily yoga and meditation practice. Along with self-reported stress reduction, brain scans showed a narrowing of part of their tonsils, a deep brain structure heavily involved in the treatment of stress, fear and anxiety.
Exercise is also emerging as a promising way to overcome depression. A 2013 meta-analysis cautiously reported that exercise – both aerobic and resistance – was “moderately effective” in treating depressive symptoms. Surprisingly, exercise seemed to be as effective as antidepressants and psychological treatments. The study authors identified it as an area in need of more rigorous investigation.
Improve your creativity
Thoreau, Nietzsche and many other creators have said that walking gives wings to the imagination. Last year, psychologists provided this empirical support. Walking, whether on a treadmill or around the leafy Stanford campus, reinforced divergent thinking: the free and idea-generating component of creative thinking. It didn’t help the convergent thinking, however. So if you’re struggling to find a one-size-fits-all solution, an idle ride might not be what you need.
Slow cognitive decline
The evidence that staying in good physical shape keeps your brain healthy into old age is particularly compelling. The most concrete is the link between aerobic capacity and cognitive preservation. Workouts don’t have to be extreme either: 30 to 45 minutes of brisk walking, three times a week, can help repel mental wear and tear and delay the onset of dementia. However, it helps to get used to regular physical activity early on. Protective effects are clearest before cognitive signs of old age appear.
It’s not about your heart and lungs either. Exercises to improve balance, coordination and agility had a clear impact on brain structure and cognitive function of a large group of elderly German people. Bi-weekly sessions of weight lifting can have a visible neurological impact. Dance can also be restorative for aging brains. One hour of dancing per week, for six months, did not significantly improve the aerobic capacity of the older participants, but physical and social stimulation enhanced their cognitive well-being.
Researchers are still identifying the critical factors that make exercise such a powerful brain tonic. The main suspects include increased blood flow to the brain, surges in growth hormones and an expansion of the brain’s blood vessel network. It is also possible that exercise stimulates the birth of new neurons. Until recently, few believed that this could happen in the adult human brain.
Don’t sit still
The cognitive fallout from exercise reminds us that our brains don’t work in isolation. What you do with your body infringes on your mental faculties. Staying still all day, every day, is dangerous. So, don’t procrastinate on the form of exercise you do. Find something you like, then get up and do it. Okay, I’m going for a run.
Ben Martynoga is a neuroscientist and science writer. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Francis Crick Institute in London. He tweets to @montagnegre.
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