The physical benefits from proper, regular exercise are no secret. But what is surprising, and not yet fully understood, are the many positive effects that the same exercise can have on your brain. True, it’s been known for centuries that exercise can improve your mood and help you reduce stress but new research is deepening our understanding of exactly how exercise can improve overall brain health.
What the Research Shows
The functions and health of your brain are actually the result of several aspects including alertness, memory, comprehension and even the ability to execute movements, or motor commands. These individual factors are, in turn, controlled by an even more complex web of hormones, signals and neurological structures. Interestingly, the emerging studies show that exercise can exert a positive influence on all of these factors.
According to a review of the many studies, published in the scientific journal Trends in Neuroscience, exercise has a much deeper impact on the brain than was previously understood. Several hormones, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) control brain growth and maintenance. The levels of these substances are increased by exercise. Certain genes related to brain plasticity, or the ability to retain information, are activated as well. These impacts of exercise combine to have an overwhelming impacted on cognitive function.
Perhaps the most impressive test of this idea was undertaken in the proving groups of a high school in Naperville, Illinois. The program began when the school placed all of the students who were struggling with math and reading in a physical education class first thing in the morning.
Reading scores increased dramatically and math scores shot up by 20 percent.
Naperville Central High School has since instituted changes that keep the students physically active throughout the day, including placing exercise bikes and sports equipment in classrooms. Teachers make a point of including some kind of physical activity in their plan for every class. Overall, the results at Naperville are a testament to the mental benefits of exercise.
How To Do It
The good news is, to get these types of results you don’t need to exercise to exhaustion. In fact, many of the studies that showed these exciting responses simply had people walking at a brisk pace for 30 minutes.
Many experts also encourage activities that are physically complex. For example, Naperville High School includes square dancing in their physical education program. Complicated activities and exercise modes involve more neurons than simple actions, and these neurons then produce increased amounts of hormones and growth chemicals.
Experts generally recommend trying to start your day with this sort of brain-stimulating activity, even if it’s only a brisk walk. If you can’t squeeze it in in the morning, though, fit your exercise into your schedule however you can. The key is to be regular and stick to your plan.
Have you enjoyed the brain-boosting benefits of exercise? Please share your experience with us in the comments!