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How Exercising Literally Changes Your Brain

Treat your brain like a muscle.

Person wearing exercise shoes
Photo by SJ Baren on Unsplash

Here’s one reason you should start jogging, even during quarantine: cardio can make you smarter.

More specifically, exercising can increase neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and form new neural connections over time. Neuroplasticity occurs every day as our brain learns information and creates new connections.

Increasing brain plasticity has many benefits, including:

  • Recovering from events like strokes and injuries;
  • Enhancing some areas to make up for lost functions;
  • Increasing effectiveness of learning; and
  • Improving memory.

New research from the University of California, San Diego, examined how exercise affects neuroplasticity in mice’s’ brains. Each test mouse spent a week in a cage – half of which had exercise wheels. After one week, researchers compared how quickly the mice learned new complex motor skills such as balancing on a narrow beam or a spinning rotator. Unsurprisingly, the mice who spent the past week exercising learned much quicker than the control group.

The researchers also discovered that mice who voluntarily ran got better at it. Over the seven days, mice showed consistent improvement in speed, endurance, and form.

A similar recent study from the American Academy of Neurology found that six months of aerobic exercise significantly improved brain function in seniors. Researchers gathered 206 adults with an average age of 66 and no history of heart or memory issues. Participants enrolled in a program where they exercised in 20-minute sessions three days a week. These sessions eventually increased to 40 minutes. Plus, researchers asked participants to work out on their own at least once a week.

Using ultrasound, researchers discovered that the average peak blood flow to the participants’ brains increased by 2.8% after six months. Plus, participants scored 5.7% better on executive function tests (self-correction and mental flexibility) and 2.4% on verbal fluency tests (quick information retrieval).

However, researchers noted that the study had no control group and couldn’t compare results to non-exercisers.

A similar study in 2011 examined how exercise affects the brains of older adults without dementia. Researchers split 120 test subjects into two year-long exercise groups: aerobic exercise and stretching. The scientists scanned the participants’ brains before the program, after six months, and after one year.

Researchers found that aerobic exercise increased participants’ left and right hippocampus sizes by 2.12% and 1.97%, respectively. These changes reduced age-related decline by a year or two. On the other hand, the stretchers saw a corresponding hippocampus decrease of 1.40% and 1.43%.

Why does exercising help the brain so much?

One reason is that working out improves blood flow everywhere in the body, including the brain. The blood delivers oxygen and glucose to the brain, both of which help it grow.

Our hippocampus produces new neurons every day. Unfortunately, most of these neurons don’t survive, especially with age. Luckily, you can grow your neurons with oxygen, BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), and stimulation. Exercise supplies both oxygen and BDNF, which act as nutrients for the brain’s neurons.

For example, one study examined how high-intensity cycling periods and five weeks of aerobic exercise increased BDNF in young adult men. The test subjects performed better on a face-name matching game, which uses the hippocampus and other brain areas.

You can also help your brain’s neurons by consuming Omega-3 fatty acids and nuts. On the other hand, age, stress, and obesity all impair the brain’s neurons.

Exercising is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. Cardio helps your brain in so many ways that I can’t even touch on them all. Try working out at least a few times each week. I’ve been going on morning runs every day during quarantine and hope that I’ll still have time to do so once the economy opens back up. It’s one of the best ways to stay healthy and happy in these dire times.

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