Weight loss, muscle strength, a release of happy endorphins—it's no secret that with exercise comes a lengthy list of positive benefits. And while these physical and emotional benefits are often among the top reasons people hit the gym, keep in mind that exercise is also good for just that—our minds.|
The brain is the body’s powerhouse. From memory retention to problem solving, everything you do, say and feel is controlled in the depths of your noggin. Simple things like driving directions, the name of your aunt's new cat and remembering where you put the eggs depend on your brain’s well-being.
Yet, like most parts of the body, the brain experiences significant changes once you hit age 40. Slow but steady cognitive decline is a natural association with the aging process. However, that doesn’t mean your brain has reached its end game. The way you treat your body today can still pave the way for tomorrow, which is where the importance of regular exercise comes in.
Thankfully, it’s never too late to start an active routine—even if – even if you’re in your 40s. “Brain-related benefits from exercise can be gained at any age, even if you have an existing neurological disorder,” says Giselle Petzinger, M.D., Assistant Professor of Research in University of Southern California's Department of Neurology at Keck School of Medicine. And while individuals with lifelong exercise habits do experience more mental benefits over a longer period of time, starting later—instead of never—will still work in your favor.
Your Brain on Exercise
Thanks to the interrelated nature of the human body, regular exercise and activity ensures that your brain stays in tip-top shape. Exercise jumpstarts six brain-boosting mechanisms, helping you live life to its fullest. Time to get moving!
1. Supports Oxygen Flow
Physical activity ensures that your blood is moving and grooving. Exercise is like your heart’s cheerleader; the more you move, the harder your heart pumps. As a result, healthy blood flow is maintained.
Dr. Petzinger shares that exercise brings oxygenated blood to major areas of the body, including the brain. The oxygen fuels your cells, helping them do their thing.
"When brain cells have adequate oxygen, they form neural connections, access memories and function properly," says Dr. Petzinger. "Fitness doubles as training the body to use oxygen efficiently."
Healthy oxygen flow can also prevent heart disease, a risk factor for Alzheimer's. It comes down to decreasing high blood pressure, a condition that interferes with your brain's normal functioning. John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health also reports that high blood pressure is associated with high levels of beta-amyloid, a toxic protein that doubles as a biomarker for Alzheimer's.
2. Stimulates Brain Growth
Exercise is often associated with bulking up muscles and bones. According to Dr. Petzinger, though, physical activity can also bulk up the brain.
"Aerobic exercise strengthens the hippocampus," explains Dr. Petzinger. Those lyrics from that 80s one-hit wonder that you still remember? Thank your hippocampus—which is responsible for long-term memories—for that. And while memory retention and recall declines as you near age 65, exercise can play a role in preventing just that. It might even be the answer to remembering your long lost cousin's birthday.
This doesn’t mean you need to stick to morning runs and spin classes, though. The Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society stated in a 2015 study that anaerobic exercise, or resistance training, can also be advantageous.
The study found that activities such as weight lifting can slow down the natural age-related degeneration of the brain's white matter. This type of brain tissue houses nerve cell extensions, protecting the integrity of nerve signaling and communication. Higher white matter volume is favorable; it cushions the cells, creating the best environment for high quality function. And in this particular study, exercise boosts white matter volume in older female participants.
The takeaway: When you work out, so do your brain cells. Any type of exercise counts. In fact, according to Dr. Petzinger, exercise actually stimulates neurogenesis, or the development of new brain cells, which in turn increases the potential for new brain connections to form. Skill-based exercises, such as yoga or sports, are especially beneficial for neurogenesis.
3. Increases Release Hormones
Like most aspects of the body, hormones play a significant role in brain function. They work behind-the-scenes, influencing everything we feel, say or do. Unsurprisingly, hormones that impact the brain are heavily influenced by exercise.
The main players released by exercise are serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. This specific cocktail of hormones works together to make sure you're feeling awesome long after you conquer that last set of squats.
Serotonin, for example, has anti-depressive benefits. A 2007 article in the Journal of Psychiatry Neuroscience mentions that multiple studies discovered a direct relationship between serotonin levels and mood. The lower the serotonin, the lower the mood. Likewise, higher levels were linked to better moods.
When you exercise, the brain churns out more serotonin and those levels remain high even after you complete your workout The result is basically runner's high at its absolute finest.
Dopamine and norepinephrine work in similar ways. A 2003 study in Neurobiology of Disease shares that exercise amplifies dopamine, a hormone associated with increased brain function paired with a lowered risk of dementia and Parkinson's disease. And as for norepinephrine? The American Psychological Association links this hormone to less stress and anxiety. It also contributes to more focused attention and energy. Did someone say seriously productive work days?
4. Encourages Less Stress
The release of mood-boosting hormones is just one brain-related benefit of regular exercise. You’re also prepping yourself for a better handle on stress when you work out. Between the oxygen flow and hormone release, a prime environment for problem solving and clearer thinking develops. As a result, dealing with tense and tricky situations is less rough on the mind. You’ll have a better head on your shoulders—literally.
Granted, stress is a normal part of life and can be used a motivational springboard. When it builds up, though, stress can take a toll on your overall health. This is where exercise steps in to save the day.
"When you exercise, your brain forms a response that helps you handle pain and discomfort from mental and physical stress," says Dr. Petizinger. "This builds mental toughness."
Exercise also cultivates confidence, allowing you to thrive in other areas of life. It paves the way for a clearer mind, as well, prompting healthier day-to-day decisions.
5. Regulates Sleep Cycle
Physical activity is one of the healthiest ways to normalize your sleep schedule, as it promotes tiredness in a way that benefits your body.
Getting enough shut eye is vital for brain function—your brain will be the first to know if you don’t sleep enough. Resting your peepers gives your brain a chance to rest and recharge. National Institutes of Health pegs sleep as an opportunity for "clearing" the brain, removing beta-amyloid–that Alzheimer's biomarker–from the body.
Sufficient sleep also primes the nervous system, guarding your brain’s neural connections. Without rest, these connections feel stressed out, causing your mind and body to feel drained. These sluggish vibes will make it difficult to focus and concentrate on daily tasks. After all, when you’re exhausted, so is your brain.
6. Increases Productivity
A healthy brain is essential for staying focused. It helps you carry out life's daily responsibilities, from chasing deadlines to running errands. Fortunately, exercise can increase your chances of staying productive.
A 2015 study in the journal Neurology reports that regular exercise slows down cognitive decline associated with age. In fact, researchers determined that physical activity can slow down aging by about 10 years. By protecting your cognitive abilities, your memory and attention will flourish. Consequently, you're less likely to get distracted while you complete tasks.
Of course, we can’t forget about the important role sleep plays in productivity. When you're well-rested, your concentration improves. Dr. Petzinger reminds us that adequate sleep encourages mental sharpness, ensuring that you perform efficiently. And thanks to exercise, your brain will be checking off that to-do list in no time.