It is well known that exercise promotes cardiovascular health, helps maintain ideal body weight, prevents and even treats chronic disease. But did you know that exercise also boosts brain health with some immediate benefits?
Physical activity changes our brain chemistry to help us think more clearly and feel better. Consistent exercise reduces inflammation, improves blood sugar regulation, and enhances blood supply—all of which can improve cognition. Exercise improves sleep habits, reduces stress, and regulates mood. These domains of wellness, in turn, are able to promote cognition as an added benefit of exercise. Movement may also work to ameliorate cognitive impairments associated with specific disease states. The protective qualities of exercise can counter the cognitive consequences of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, and depression.
Research shows that exercise and overall cardiorespiratory fitness are associated with increased hippocampal volume, a brain area related to learning and memory. These associations are stronger the longer someone has been adhering to a regular exercise routine. Many studies have documented improvements in executive function (i.e., memory, processing speed, intelligence, and reaction time) immediately following exercise and with a continued program. Experimental trials suggest that exercise can improve cognition directly by protecting and expanding brain circuits. Although the mechanism by which exercise is able to improve cognition is not fully understood, several pathways have been proposed. Exercise promotes neurogenesis—the generation of new brain cells—in the hippocampus. A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) becomes elevated after aerobic exercise and may be responsible for neurogenesis. In addition, exercise appears to increase the amount of energy available to the brain, further promoting executive function.
So, what type of exercise should you be doing? The good news is that any increase in physical activity demonstrates benefit. Immediate effects following exercise occur after 10-20 minutes of moderately intense aerobic exercise (e.g., brisk walking, biking, jogging). Resistance training (i.e., weight lifting or band exercises) also appears to have some benefits as well. Many of us struggle to get a good amount of physical activity, and putting exercise in the context of the brain benefits might help with that extra motivation.
Aim for the CDC guidelines goal of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. It is ok to work your way up to that amount and even go beyond, but it is a good target to gain much of the cognitive benefits and become better equipped to tackle life. The best thing you can do is to start being active. This can be as simple as taking a walk a few times a week or choosing the stairs instead of the elevator.