Exercise’s Impact on the Brain

You know that a regular exercise routine can help your heart stay healthy, keep diseases like diabetes at bay and make your muscles strong.

But did you know working out can impact your memory and mental health, as well? Ben Martynoga, a neuroscientist and science writer, explains that research continues to support the exercise-brain connection: “A wave of studies exploring the unexpected links between mental and bodily fitness is emerging from labs. This research might give you the impetus to get more active. It can also help you choose the best ways to prepare physically for mental challenges such as exams, interviews and creative projects.”

To leverage the power of the mind-body connection, it’s helpful to understand how that connection works. This guide will show you how exercise changes your brain, how it improves both your physical and mental health, and what exercises are best for boosting brain function.

The Link Between Exercise and Memory

Memory is a complex and incredible function of the mind. Many people describe having a fully functioning memory as “staying sharp”—a primary concern for many aging adults.

Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, founder and chief director at the UT Dallas Center for BrainHealth, has found that aerobic exercise can help address this worry. In a 2013 study that Chapman led, researchers looked at adults from 57 to 75 years old over the course of 12 weeks. One group of participants exercised on treadmills and stationary bikes for one hour, three days each week. The other group did not exercise.

The researchers found that the active participants had improved memory function and increased blood flow to the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory.

Further, exercise can produce the proteins that the brain needs to retain and create new cells in the hippocampus, researcher David DiSalvo explains. “Research has discovered that exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 that is released into the bloodstream while we’re breaking a sweat,” DiSalvo writes at Forbes.

“Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses—the connection points between nerves—and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.”

In other words, exercise stimulates the growth and the preservation of the region of the brain responsible for storing memories. And science shows this exercise-hippocampus connection has several benefits for our minds.

Exercise Can Improve Our Pattern-Recognition Skills

High-interface memory is an important component in memory. It’s how our brains distinguish patterns in what we see. For example, high-interface memory helps you recognize that a dog of an unfamiliar breed is still a dog.

Cameron Evans at Psychology Today reports on some of the surprising research that looked into exercise’s effect on this type of memory. For this study, researchers at McMaster University in Canada sorted participants into three groups. One group performed exercise, one group performed exercise and cognitive training, and the final group did neither. It seems obvious that that the second group—which received both cognitive and physical training—would see the most improvement. After all, they were the only ones receiving cognitive training—and cognitive training is the conventional way to improve a person’s mind.

At first, the researchers saw exactly that. “The results showed that, unlike the control group, participants who underwent the cognitive and exercise training sessions improved on the high-interference memory task,” Evans writes.

However, something unexpected happened when they saw the results from the group who simply exercised.

As the results from the second group showed memory improvement, “so did those who only received exercise training,” Evans continues. The research seems to suggest that exercise alone can help people with cognitive abilities. While this study focused on young adults, the researchers are currently working on a similar study with older adults and hypothesize the findings will be similar.

Exercise Can Make Long-Term Memories More Accessible

Memory consolidation is another important function of the brain. It’s what helps people form long-term memories.

Shikha Snigdha and fellow researchers at the Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders found that exercise can help keep this memory function in tact. The researchers explain that even if you feel you are losing your ability to retain long-term memories, exercise can have an immediate effect on mitigating decline—an effect that continues over time.

Exercise Can Push Back Against the Negative Effects of Stress on the Brain

Not only does exercise help improve your memory functions, it can also play defense against lifestyle factors that would otherwise negatively impact your memory.

New York Times science reporter Gretchen Reynolds explains that while certain lifestyle factors—namely stress—can prevent our synapses from firing off properly, research suggests that exercise can counter that effect.

A team of researchers from Brigham Young University’s Department of Physiology and Developmental Biology and Neuroscience Center recently published the results of a study that explored the relationships among stress, memory and the synapses in the hippocampuses of mice.

They found that mice that experienced stress showed signs of impaired memories, whereas the mice that exercised after experiencing stress showed normal memory function. “Collectively, exercise can mitigate some of the negative impact stress has on hippocampal function when both occur concurrently,” the researchers conclude.

Exercise Can Even Fight Mental Illness

Helping you remember things isn’t the only way exercise can impact your grey matter. Working out regularly can help you stave off depression, which is particularly common in the aging population.

Dr. Robert Madan at the University of Toronto has made it his mission to end depression among the elderly. He explains that memory diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia are closely related. By taking care of your memory, you can help fight off depression.

So, exactly how helpful can exercise be in the fight against depression? Ellen Goldstein at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and fellow researchers found that exercise is as effective as practicing mindfulness. “Findings suggest that mindfulness and exercise training share similar mechanisms that can improve global mental health, including adaptive responses to stress,” the researchers write.

We have already shown how meditation is a key component of a healthy lifestyle. Adding exercise to the mix will only reinforce your other memory-boosting healthy habits.

It’s Never Too Late to Start

If you read these studies and find yourself wishing you’d focused more on exercise in your youth, don’t feel discouraged. Research has found that it’s never too late to see the benefits of exercise on your cognitive abilities.

“The findings suggest that healthy life style changes in exercise habits can help to mitigate unnecessary losses,” Chapman at the Center for BrainHealth and her team conclude. “The sooner one starts the better since the slope of declines in brain and cognitive health become steeper from age 50 forward.”

Even after 50, however, starting on a regular exercise routine is still a great idea, even if it’s never been a key aspect of your life to that point.

Ronald Petersen, MD, PhD, director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at the Mayo Clinic, is the lead author on a study that shows people who are experiencing mild cognitive impairment can still see benefits from exercising.

"We need not look at aging as a passive process; we can do something about the course of our aging," Petersen says. "So if I'm destined to become cognitively impaired at age 72, I can exercise and push that back to 75 or 78. That's a big deal."

Tips for a Successful Brain-Body Workout Routine

The most important part of creating an exercise routine is to do something you can stick to.

Walking and riding a stationary bike are the main types of exercise in each of these studies cited. Interestingly, Beth Howard of AARP also recommends trying yoga. You don’t have to pay a small fortune to join a yoga studio either. Apps like Gaia, YogaGlo and Yoga Studio allow you to practice yoga anywhere.

If yoga and running aren’t your style, consider resistance exercises such as weight lifting. Carrie Cuttler and fellow researchers report in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology that resistance training bolsters prospective memory, which is what helps you remember your to-do list.

Get Moving for Your Brain

Memory loss doesn’t have to be a given as you age. Understanding how working out affects your brain can help you retain your memory, fight mental illness and live a happier life for longer.

Exercise is an important factor in how our brains age, and VitaYears™ Memory Support Supplement can take those health benefits up another level. Whether you prefer aerobic exercises, resistance training or yoga, you can see significant improvement in your cognitive abilities just by getting your body moving.

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