Exercise is commonly used to improve muscle strength or improve cardiovascular fitness, but with it comes a range of other benefits you may not be aware of. One of these being brain health, from improving cognitive function to reducing our risk of dementia.
Exercise has many direct and indirect improvements on brain health. Directly it helps to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation factors, and stimulate the release of growth factors which affect the health of brain cells. These factors stimulate the growth of new brain cells and blood vessels in the brain which is important for flow of glucose and lipid metabolism to carry ‘food’ to the brain.
Parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (prefrontal cortex and temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise compared to those who don’t. A study from Harvard showed that regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months to a year increased the volumes of these selected areas of the brain. A further study done at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise appeared to increase the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning.
Exercise may also be important in decreasing our risk for developing brain related diseases. Several studies have found that higher physical activity levels in early, mid, and late life is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia in later years. While this isn’t a direct correlation, exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity which are all risk factors for dementia.
Finally, there is a large amount of evidence supporting exercise for neuroplasticity. This being the ability of the brain and nervous system to modify itself in response to an experience. Physical exercise is considered an enhancing factor for promoting neuroplasticity and improving our ability to learn and improve our cognitive function. This is especially important in younger years when our brains are developing more rapidly. There is a huge amount of supporting evidence for physical activity improving academic achievements in schools and even the addition of physical activity during recess improving academic performances in math classes following.
Who would have thought handball and algebra went hand in hand!