We all want to improve our brain function. Chances are you’ve tried something to aid your brain in the past, whether it’s brain games to improve memory, coffee to increase your ability to concentrate and learn something knew, or some sort of herb or meditation to improve your mental health. The pharmaceutical and natural health industries make a booming business from this area of health, and we spend hundreds of dollars a year on products to improve our brain health.
What if, however, a large part of the answer lies in one remedy, and one that can technically be done for free? Turns out this isn’t just hypothetical: research has found that one particular type of exercise is as close to a miracle drug as possible for our brain health.
How Exercise Improves Brain Function
We all know that exercise is good for our mental health, but research is showing that sustained aerobic exercise (aka cardio) in particular, has the most benefits. It can lift your mood and improve mental health, fight back against age-related cognitive decline, improve memory and focus, and even improve the memory of those suffering from “chemo brain” after recovering from breast cancer.
Exercise for Mental Health
Anyone will regularly goes out for good walks, jogs, swims, bikes, or does any other form of sustained cardiovascular activity, will know the immediate mood-boost that follows a session. This kind of exercise can improve mood, alleviate depression, and increase self-esteem and confidence, in a number of ways:
Endorphins: Some will call this as “runner’s high, which refers to the hit of endorphins your brain receives post-exercise. These chemicals interact with receptors in your brain and actually reduce how you perceive situations, making them not seem that bad. Endorphins also have a similar effect on the body that the drug morphine does, as they attach to the same receptor sites, energizing you and increasing feelings of positivity. (1, 2)
Increased Blood Circulation to the Brain: When you exercise, your body works harder to pump blood around your body to the areas that need it most. This ultimately stimulates more blood flowing to your brain, which influences the areas of your brain responsible for responding to stress. This decreases anxiety and depression and increases motivation, mood, and the formation of memories. (1, 2, 3)
Improves Self Esteem and Cognitive Function: This has many facets to it. There is the chemical side, in which exercise increases blood flow and connections in your brain to improve its ability to perform, but there is also the social and emotional side. Exercising makes us feel accomplished and good about our bodies, increasing confidence and self-esteem. There is also often a social side to exercise, whether it’s a walk with a friend, going to the gym and interacting with others, or playing on a team. (1, 2, 3)
Exercise for Improved Memory
Regular exercise improves memory in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly.
Reduce Insulin Resistance: Though currently unsure of how this affects memory, there are studies being done in to both vascular and non-vascular mechanisms in which insulin resistance causes cognitive decline. What we do know, is how exercise improves insulin sensitivity: When we exercise, our body burns the glucose stored in our muscles as glycogen. Afterwards, our body replaces that lost muscle glycogen from glucose in the bloodstream, thus increasing your body’s sensitivity to insulin. (6)
Reduce Inflammation in the Brain: Again, though not yet well-understood, researchers have found a link between increased inflammation and a decrease in cognitive decline. Exercise, and it’s increase in blood flow to the brain, seem to improve that. (5)
Stimulate the Release of Growth Factors: These are the chemicals that improve the health of existing brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and the amount and survival of new brain cells. (4)
Makes your Brain Bigger: Researchers have found that prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex of the brain, the parts that control thinking and memory, are larger in people who exercise than people who don’t. (4)
Exercise for Age-Related Cognitive Decline and “Chemo Brain”
Cognitive decline as we age has long been seen as a natural part of the aging process, and yet there are some people who live to be over 100 and are still just as sharp as they were twenty, thirty, and forty or more years ago.(1, 7) Another common reason for cognitive decline is due to the post-treatment side effects or chemotherapy, known as “chemo brain”, or a decreased memory and ability to focus. (1, 8) Exercise, as it seems, can prevent and resolve this problem.
Decrease age-related cognitive decline: Moderate intensity aerobic exercise has shown to increase the functional connectivity of the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC)/precuneus area of the brain, the region which seems to be most affected by aging and the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Researchers believe this may be due to an increase the mechanisms that recruit neurons (the messenger cells) of the brain, though more studies are being done to confirm and better understand this phenomena. (1, 7)
Decreased Fatigue: Studies done on breast cancer survivors have found that moderate to vigorous exercise decreases fatigue in subjects, which in turn improves performance on execution function tasks and working memory tasks, both in speed of completion and accuracy. Again, more studies need to be done to improve understanding of the mechanisms behind these findings. (1, 8)
What Kind of Exercise is Best?
While all types of exercise (cardio, strength training, and flexibility training) have an important place in your exercise routine, aerobic cardiovascular activity is your best option for improving your brain function. Before you throw your hands up and say “ugh! Cardio!”, realize that this doesn’t mean you have to start running marathons. Even just 30 to 45 minutes of moderate activity each day will bring on the benefits. This could be:
Playing a sport
Essentially, anything that gets your heart pumping, gets you sweating even just a bit, and a little breathless (even for just a portion of the workout!) will work wonders. Other fantastic workouts you can do include:
10-minute HIIT workouts for when you’re crunched for time
Any of these effective, heart pumping exercises
This simple way to get more out of your daily walk
What to do if you have joint pain
Don’t let joint pain stop you from getting in some exercise! Not only will pushing yourself to exercise everyday will improve your pain over the long-term, but there are plenty of exercises you can do and dietary changes you can make to decrease joint pain and move more.
Strength building exercises for joint pain
Plants and Herbs for joint pain
Include joint pain-fighting foods in your daily diet
Make the necessary diet and lifestyle changes to improve and get rid of your chronic joint pain
How to Get Started
As mentioned already, this doesn’t mean you should jump out the door and start running or attempt a two-hour bike ride right off the bat. Start slowly, and meet yourself where you are at. If going for a twenty or thirty minute brisk walk is intense enough for you, start there! As you get fitter and begin to fall in love with how good aerobic exercise makes you feel, you will be able to push yourself to do more. Maybe that means increasing the length of your walk, or perhaps that means adding in some jogs or faster sections throughout. Whatever it is, you know your body best and what you can and can’t handle.
Generally, you will notice the endorphin hit and that post-workout high almost immediately, perhaps even after your first session. The improved memory and increased brain function will take a little longer, as the new cells and neuron connections take time to build and form. Expect those changes to occur over a few weeks to a couple of months. After that, you can enjoy a lifetime of improved brain function, even as get older. (1, 2, 3)
Lastly, remember that it is never too late to start and improve the health and functioning of your brain. Whether you are 25, 55, or 85, your brain will benefit from getting out and moving more. Start slowly and little by little you will notice the benefits, both physiological and psychological.
Share this article with your friends and family to encourage, them, too to get out there and improve the health of their brains and bodies!
(1) Brodwin, E. (2017, July 31). There’s even more evidence that one type of exercise is the closest thing to a miracle drug that we have. Retrieved September 06, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/best-exercise-for-brain-body-2017-7
(2) Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental Health. Retrieved September 06, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
(3) Exercise and Depression. (n.d.). Retrieved September 06, 2017, from http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression#1
(4) Godman, H. (2016, November 29). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Retrieved September 06, 2017, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
(5) Memory Deficits Induced by Inflammation Are Regulated by α5-Subunit-Containing GABAA Receptors. (n.d.). Retrieved September 06, 2017, from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211124712002628
(6) Morales, S. (2017, March 26). How Insulin Resistance May Speed Up Cognitive Decline. Retrieved September 06, 2017, from https://www.diabetesdaily.com/blog/how-insulin-resistance-may-speed-up-cognitive-decline-388878/
(7) Chirles, T. J., Reiter, K., Weiss, L. R., Alfini, A. J., Nielson, K. A., & Smith, J. C. (n.d.). Exercise Training and Functional Connectivity Changes in Mild Cognitive Impairment and Healthy Elders. Retrieved September 06, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28304298
(8) Ehlers, D. K., Aguiñaga, S., Cosman, J., Severson, J., Kramer, A. F., & McAuley, E. (2017, July 04). The effects of physical activity and fatigue on cognitive performance in breast cancer survivors. Retrieved September 06, 2017, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10549-017-4363-9