5 ways exercise is good for the mind

Why is exercise important for your brain?



S.A.C. Dip (Diet, Exercise and Fitness)
@AVogelUK
Ask Louise


06 April 2020

Why is exercise important for your brain?

Exercise is a good way to keep your mind functioning happily and efficiently. This blog will explore the various ways in which exercise is good for the brain, including how it can have a positive influence on the following:

  1. Memory
  2. Alertness
  3. Mood
  4. Stress and anxiety
  5. Aging.

Memory

We all want to keep our memory in tip-top shape, whether we are getting older or simply want to bring our A-game to work and other activities. Well, the good news is that there is a lot of research to indicate that exercise is beneficial here – for younger and older adults alike!

Just 3 running sessions per week for a period of six weeks was found to improve aspects of memory amongst a group of healthy adults. Here, one notable area of improvement was verbal memory, which simply means the ability to recall information presented through conversation.1

The findings are similarly positive for older adults. Amongst this group research has shown that exercise can improve memory function and brain health; plus, according to the NHS, regular exercise could lower the risk of dementia by 30%.2

The brain naturally shrinks as we get older, especially after the age of 40; but research indicates that exercise could increase the size of the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.3 This may go some way towards explaining why exercise influences our memory capacities.

In particular, aerobic exercise (which is anything that gets your heart pumping and your breathing up) was found to be of benefit, provided it was done regularly. 2-3 times per week is enough for this gain.

So, it seems that making exercise part of your weekly routine (if you don't already) will help keep your memory sharp – no excuses for forgotten birthday cards now!

Alertness

Personally, I find that a walk, run or cycle outdoors makes me feel bright and refreshed – there's nothing like a fresh breeze or a chill drizzle to put you on alert (it's not often sunny in the UK!). However, there may be a more scientific reason behind these feelings as well.

It has been established that exercise can make us feel more energised because it releases hormones called endorphins. These are like little pleasure chemicals that make us feel upbeat. Ever heard of a runner's high? This is what causes it.

That being said, if we do the same exercises on a regular basis the body can dim the production of endorphins meaning you have to work harder to get the same effect. Mixing up your activities and trying new things is another good way to maintain endorphin-related 'highs'.

Additionally, including various exercises in your routine may improve sleep. You may just find that this has the added benefit of making you feel brighter during the day.


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Mood

As well as making us feel alert, endorphins released by exercise also have the exciting ability to improve mood. Had a bad day at work? A refreshing cycle may just be the perfect way to put it behind you, mentally and physically.

It is interesting to note that endorphins can also be released by laughter, so in a way exercise is, effectively, the equivalent of going to see your favourite comedian or watching a great comedy on Netflix. Well, sort of you just burn a few more calories as you do it...

If you have a few friends interested, you could use a platform like Zoom to exercise together. Apps like Strava are also a good way to compare workouts and find sporting inspiration from your family and friends.

Stress and anxiety

When you are pounding the treadmill or taking a long stroll outdoors, this can be a good distraction from your everyday stresses. I bet when you're trying to get up a steep hill or are aiming to hit a 5k, the last thing on your mind is that new and challenging task your boss set you during the day!

By allowing us to focus on other things, exercise can be a good stress-reliever. Also, by focusing on our own sporting goals and watching improvements in our overall fitness levels, self-esteem can be boosted, which can dampen down feelings of stress and anxiety.

What's more, we should mention those handy endorphins again. By releasing that 'runners high' (or any other kind of sporting high for that matter), exercise can help to dim down any feelings of stress.

Aging

Finally, as well as keeping our memory processes ticking over nicely, exercise has been found to offer additional benefits for older adults.

According to research, exercise keeps the blood vessels that supply the brain healthy and prevents the build-up of damaging inflammatory chemicals.4 Both of these factors could play a part in keeping the brain healthy as we age.

There's also a suggestion that a regular workout will increase the release of growth factors, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). These are chemicals in the brain that encourage new blood vessels and brain cells to grow.5 As such, they could help to prevent age-related decline by preventing deterioration of the brain.

Learning new skills is a good way to keep the brain sharp and we can do this through regular exercise. An exercise class will change week-by-week, for example, so there are many routines to keep learning. Taking up something completely new is also a good way to keep the mind working hard.

It can sometimes be harder to keep up regular exercise as we get older, due to other health issues; however, keep things simple and there's no reason you shouldn't be able to keep moving.

I'd recommend reading my blog '5 exercise tips for older adults' for some gentle exercise recommendations.

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References

1 https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sanna_Stroth/publication/5243962_Aerobic_endurance_exercise_benefits_memory_and_affect_in_young_adults/links/578c84a508ae254b1de446a0.pdf 
2 https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/exercise-health-benefits/ 
3 https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1053811917309138 

4 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2596698/ 
5 https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S1053811917309138 

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