How Exercise Builds a Better Brain
February 26, 2014 • By Traci Stein, PhD, MPH, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Topic Expert Contributor
We have long known that regular exercise leads to improved muscle tone, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and balance, and reduced risk of a number of chronic diseases. In addition, a growing body of research has found that exercise can enhance cognition and improve mood. In some studies, even a single session of exercise has been shown to have brain benefits.
The human brain is a fairly adaptive organ in that it can undergo both structural and functional changes in response to training or environmental demands. This quality is referred to as “neuroplasticity.” We now know from several studies that exercise (1) facilitates the development of new neurons in the brain by increasing a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), (2) increases angiogenesis (in which new blood vessels are formed from existing ones), and (3) increases blood flow to the brain. These changes are associated with a number of benefits, listed below:
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1. Reduction in both age-related cognitive decline as well that seen in Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia—including among people who carry a gene linked to Alzheimer’s.
2. Improved general cognitive ability, as well as enhanced working memory, reaction time, language skills, verbal learning, visual-spatial skills, and executive functioning (planning, paying attention, decision making, etc.). In some studies, regular exercise has been linked to improved mathematics and reading scores.
3. Reduced severity of depression symptoms. In some research, the effect has been comparable to that achieved with antidepressants.
4. Improved sleep in those who have anxiety and/or depressive issues.
5. In animal models, engaging in an exercise program for more than two weeks has been associated with a protective effect against depression despite exposure to a laboratory stressor.
6. For regular exercisers, a greater mood enhancement benefit after even a single session of exercise as compared to nonexercisers.
7. Reduced “state” (in the moment) and “trait” (more enduring) anxiety. One meta-analysis found noticeable benefits after 10 weeks of regular exercise, with greater benefits after 16 weeks.
8. Increased resistance to experimentally induced panic attacks in those diagnosed with panic after a program of moderate- to high-intensity exercise.
Furthermore, related to No. 8, preliminary research has found that people who have panic have reduced levels of BDNF in the hippocampus. Exercise has been shown to increase the levels of BDNF in the hippocampi of those with panic, but not change levels in control groups. Enhanced BDNF in the hippocampus may improve one’s ability to respond to exposure-based therapies for panic.
Recent research has found that even a single bout of exercise has a small but significant positive effect on cognitive performance. This may be due to changes in heart rate, BDNF, endorphins, and the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Exercise has been shown to improve general health, lessen the likelihood of developing a chronic physical illness, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve cognitive functions such as learning, memory, and executive functioning, including attention. Furthermore, exercise has been demonstrated to benefit people across the lifespan. Given the cognitive benefits associated with exercise, exercising regularly may be especially important for those struggling with mood issues or who have difficulty focusing and following through on tasks, such as those who have attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD).
Although more research needs to be done to adequately understand how exercise impacts the brain, the research clearly indicates benefits of exercise on cognitive abilities that otherwise tend to decline over time. Given the myriad other health benefits associated with regular exercise, it’s worth aiming to do so regularly—at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise on most days of the week. Of course, if you are new to exercise or have a medical condition, make sure you have clearance from your doctor before beginning an exercise program.
Asmundson, G.J., Fetzner, M.G., Deboer, L.B., Powers, M.B., Otto, M.W., and J.A. Smits (2013). Let’s Get Physical: A Contemporary Review of the Anxiolytic Effects of Exercise for Anxiety and Its Disorders. Depress Anxiety. 30(4):362-73
Hillman, C.H., Erickson, K.I., and A.F. Kramer (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise Effects on Brain and Cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 58-65. http://dericbownds.net/uploaded_images/exercise_hillman.pdf
LeMoyne, E.L., Curnier, D., St-Jacques, S., and D. Ellemberg (2012). The Effects of Exercise During Pregnancy on the Newborn’s Brain: Study Protocol for a Randomized Controlled Trial. Trials, 13:68. http://www.biomedcentral.com/content/pdf/1745-6215-13-68.pdf
MacIntosh, B.J., Crane, D.E., Sage, M.D., Rajab, A.S., Donahue, M.J., et al. (2014). Impact of a Single Bout of Aerobic Exercise on Regional Brain Perfusion and Activation Responses in Healthy Young Adults. PLoS ONE 9(1): e85163. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0085163#pone-0085163-g004
Chang, Y.K., Labban, J.D., Gapin, J.I., and J.L. Etnier. The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Brain Research, Volume 1453, 9 May 2012, Pages 87-101
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