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Most of us know exercise enhances physical fitness and overall health but how does exercise improve brain function?
Throughout the last 100 years or so we have had some incredible advances in technology.
Where We Come From
We went from getting around either by walking or on horseback or horse-pulled carriages to driving in automobiles, trains, planes, and ships.
We can travel further, faster and with much less effort.
We mass-produce food through high-production farming and creating massive amounts of bulk-produced food in factories.
Restaurants are everywhere, think about that. We can eat somewhere different every night and not have the same food twice and we don’t have to cook or clean up afterwards.
If we choose to stay home, we can just pop something in the microwave or have take-out delivered.
Even our work has changed with automation. In factories, robots do what humans used to do. Now we work in a cubicle in an office with no physical work involved at all.
Chances are we took an elevator or escalator to get to that floor of the office building so we got less exercise again.
With the development of television, we changed our leisure activities. Now we come home from work and plop down on the couch for the evening, we don’t even have to get up to change the channel or answer the phone.
We have adopted the notion that exercise is something athletes do and we pay money to go watch them do physical things like play hockey, football or basketball.
We have decided that we need a fancy gym membership in order to exercise which then implies that only those who can afford the membership are worthy of exercise.
There are even houses now that you can turn your heat up or down, open or close window shades or even the windows themselves just by speaking to a computer.
All of these advances are hurting us more than they are helping us and we don’t even realize it.
According to the World Health Organization, 54% of the world’s population lived in urban areas in 2015. That is projected to increase to 60% in 2030 and to 66% by 2050. This is very significant because until the 20th century only one in ten people lived in an urban area.
An article written by Jonathon Shaw in Harvard Magazine states that 75% of the American population fails to meet the minimum exercise requirements of 30 minutes daily.
Historically, the habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors typically walked 20 -30 km daily.
The irony is we tend to think of ourselves as being focused on fitness, but the reality is we have created a generation of inactive, unfit, and increasingly overweight young people who don’t know how to produce their own food should the need arise. And even if they did know, they don’t have the strength to do it.
The old adage “survival of the fittest” held true. You either figured out how to survive or you died. That was life.
How soft we have become.
Some young people literally have no idea where their food comes from.
I’ll share a personal story here to prove this point
I love gardening and ever since I can remember I have grown my own vegetables.
This one particular time I decided to gift a co-worker some produce from my garden.
You would think this would be appreciated but instead, she looked at the produce in horror.
She literally didn’t recognize the food without the supermarket plastic wrappers.
Here she was given food that was fresher than any bought in any supermarket and she thought something was wrong with it:
- because it had a little dirt on it
- it wasn’t in a plastic wrapper or container
- doesn’t look the same because it doesn’t have dyes injected to enhance the appearance
I had to explain that the food in the supermarket came from a farm where it was grown just like this was grown.
I even washed the vegetables for her and showed her how they were the same.
This really opened my eyes to the serious state of mankind. As a species, we are in serious trouble and it’s getting worse.
My point is when we had to hunt for our food and grow our vegetables our work was our exercise. Everybody was fit and healthy. Very few if any were overweight and dementia was rare. In fact, the young would go to the older generation for guidance. Today we put the older generation in old age homes and treat them as extra baggage in the way.
Let’s take a closer look at…
How Exercise Affects The Brain.
Some specifically wish to lose weight while many others choose to remain fit in order to avoid or lessen the odds of acquiring many serious health conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke.
I don’t know of anybody who chooses to exercise with the sole intent of improving brain functionality.
Have you ever thought about neurology while hitting the treadmill at the gym or home?
Exercise can, directly and indirectly, improve memory and thinking.
Exercise has the ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation and stimulate the release of growth factors (chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and even both the abundance and survival of new brain cells).
Indirectly, exercise can improve both mood and quality of sleep while reducing stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety frequently contribute to cognitive impairment.
Many studies have suggested that the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex (parts of the brain responsible for thinking and memory) have greater volume in those who exercise regularly versus those who don’t.
In fact, Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School says that “Engaging in regular, moderate-intensity exercise over six months to a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest exercise improves cognitive functioning, mental health and memory while hindering the development of certain neurological conditions.
A 2008 article written by Michelle Ploughman suggests three main neuro-scientific theories explaining how physical exercise positively impacts our cognitive ability.
- During exercise, increased oxygen saturation and blood vessel growth (angiogenesis) occur in the parts of the brain associated with rational thinking, social, physical and intellectual performance.
- While exercising, stress hormone levels drop and neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine are increased. These are known for accelerating our ability to process information.
- Exercise stimulates neurotrophins and supports the survival and differentiation of neurons in the developing brain.
It stands to reason that regular exercise clearly benefits our brain through both direct and indirect means.
Neurological Benefits of Exercise
Now that we know there are clear benefits to the brain for getting regular exercise let’s take a closer look at the specific benefits we can understand and notice in our day to day lives.
These benefits could include
- decreased stress
- less social anxiety
- better able to process emotions
- prevent many neurological conditions
- improved mood (short term euphoria)
- increased quality of sleep
- increased energy, focus and attention
- slowing of the ageing process
- improved memory
- increased blood circulation
- decreased ‘brain fog’
And what do you suppose is the common factor with all of these benefits? The brain.
Interesting Brain Facts
Throughout the years we have not only heard but also believed many myths about the brain, its function and its ageing. Let’s check out some interesting facts about the brain and possibly debunk some old myths.
Scientists have long believed that our fluid intelligence (our wits and memory) peaks at around twenty years of age then slowly declines with age.
Recent studies by MIT scientists have shown it to be much more complicated than that.
They are stating that it isn’t so much that our cognitive processes get better or worse over time but that they alter.
They are stating that:
- age 18 & 19, information processing peaks
- at age 25, short-term memory peaks and at age 35 it starts to decline
- in the ’30s, visual short-term memory peaks
- in the ’40s and ’50s the ability to read other peoples emotions peaks
- and vocabulary peaks in the ’60s and ’70s
This means that as we age what we are best at changes with age and life experience.
How Exercise Increases the Size of your Brain
Research has shown that exercising enlarges the parts of the brain directly associated with memory, task management, coordination, planning and inhibition.
This means that because of this enlargement the developed parts of the brain function more efficiently and faster.
When we exercise, our brain receives increased oxygen flow which is very helpful in increasing the functionality of these areas of the brain.
Regular, exercise increases the size of the brain while simultaneously reducing obesity.
Anxiety Can Damage the Brain
Anxiety is actually damaging to the brain.
Evidence suggests that those who suffer from anxiety are actually 48% more likely to develop dementia.
This is due to prolonged periods of increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
This causes damage to the part of the brain used for memory and complex thinking.
Regular exercise will help reduce cortisol levels thereby reducing anxiety.
It is Counterproductive to Work Too Long
Ever notice how when you sit down to work you find yourself clipping along at a great pace and being very productive for about an hour and a half to two hours and then you seem to lose focus and drift off task a bit?
That is because the brain goes through periods of performance and productivity, usually about 1.5 – 2 hours in length.
If you continue working beyond that point, you will likely experience a period of lower productivity.
Simply taking a short 20-minute break can return that product to its peak.
More and more companies are starting to recognize the increased productivity by providing ample break periods for their workers.
I find this to be true in my own life.
When I head into the office to work each day, I find I can get more done in an hour and a half than if I were to sit at the computer all day.
Simply getting up and walking around a bit and maybe getting a glass of water restores my productivity when I go back to the computer.
This is why I love working from home, I can take breaks whenever I find myself drifting off task.
Brain Shape Determines Personality Type
A 2016 study by Mitchel and Kumari suggests that the shape of a person’s brain can give indicators of personality predispositions and predict the severity they may suffer from certain mental illnesses.
The stretching and folding of brain tissue caused by fluctuating cortisol levels can indicate a higher chance of developing neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
Our brain health should become a top priority for us.
We know our brains are constantly growing new nerve cells. It makes sense then we should contribute to the health of these new cells by doing all we can to ensure they get what they need to develop in the most healthy way possible.
What we can do is ensure we get regular exercise
How Can We Take Care of Our Brain
There are several things we can do to help maintain or possibly even improve our brain health such as:
- Remain physically active. Try to ensure you get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (walking, jogging, biking or swimming) per week. Keep in mind that any amount of exercise is beneficial to the brain.
- Learn new mentally stimulating activities. Read a new book, try a new hobby, or learn a new skill. Why not try woodworking, knitting, gardening, puzzles or math problems. You could even learn a new language or play a new instrument. Try with smaller manageable tasks first and then advance from there, ensure to always be challenging yourself.
- Avoid isolation and remain socially active. Schedule regular get-togethers with family and friends. Other ideas might be to join a local social organization or volunteer at a church, hospital or another charitable group.
- Eating a healthy diet will also help ensure your brain has the nutrients it needs to be its healthiest.
Some Final Thoughts
How does exercise improve brain function is a vital piece of information we all need to know in order to make the best decisions in life.
If not eating an apple would cause brain cancer then you would make sure to eat them.
Not exercising has proven to be the cause of many different brain problems as we get age past 35.
And it has nothing to do with luck and everything to do with exercising. Exercising can be any form of physical movement but the more parts you use to do it the more effective.
Just yesterday my husband and I went out and raked up all the leaves in the yard and put them in the garden to till in. Not only does it give us great exercise (we both were very tired but felt great) we also will get a good healthy crop to grow next year.
Walking is an easy and simple way to get into exercising.
There are plenty of benefits to being active and creating exercise habits from a young age makes it easier to maintain those routines as we age. The good news is that regardless of when we begin exercising we can be sure our brain along with our body will benefit greatly.
There is increasing evidence that suggests remaining active lowers our risk of dementia as we age.
We both exercise regularly every day. We also took up blogging as a fun way to help others which also stimulates brain activities thereby creating a much healthier brain. Blogging allows us to talk to and even make new friends while we help others to accomplish their desires.
If you are interested in taking up blogging for a living check out the training program I used for free. It taught me everything I needed to know about blogging and now I make a nice income from it as well.
It is never too late to start getting regular daily exercise.
What are your favourite ways to exercise?
How often do you socialize with family and friends?
Leave your suggestions in the comment section below.
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