Time and time again we are told that it is beneficial for our health. That it helps to protect against an ever-growing list of life-threatening diseases. And reminded that if we are feeling inspired to change one “bad” habit in our life, doing more exercise should be near the top of our health-inspired bucket list.
Exercising the brain.
But exercise doesn’t just benefit your body, it’s effects also penetrate up into the neurons and neurochemicals which make up your brain.
What’s more, exercise can potentially act as a useful antidote to some of the stress-induced disruptions in your neural functioning. But we’re not talking here about improving your mood and mental health – another proposed benefitof doing exercise. We’re talking about facilitating synaptogenesis – the process of increasing the number of synaptic connections between the neurons in particular regions of your brain.
First, let’s see how you go about working out how exercise is beneficial to your brain.
Measuring the benefits of exercise.
Although some studies have tried to do this by comparing the brains of people who do more exercise versus those who do less exercise, this approach can be fraught with difficulties. This is because there are often many other variables which may also contribute to the differences and it is not possible to control for them all.
Instead, studies have turned to using what’s called an “intervention” approach, where you get two relatively well-matched groups of people and assign an exercise regime to one group, and a non-exercise based control activity to the other group. At the end of the intervention period – which can last hours, days, weeks or even months – they then compare the person’s performance on a range of cognitive tests and compare this with their performance at the start of the test. In this way, each person acts as their own control, and biases from individual differences and unwanted confounds are minimised.
The transferable benefit of exercise.
These kinds of studies have revealed a number of interesting findings. Firstly, let’s think about exercise in relation to brain training exercises which are promoted as a form of cognitive enrichment, but which in reality have a narrow benefit scope limited to the specific mental attribute being trained.
In contrast, studies with exercise interventions have shown that the effects are broader and can benefit a wide range of cognitive faculties including your executive function, working memory, planning and problem solving – a brain trainer’s dream outcome.
Keeping you on your toes.
Although the neurobiological mechanisms through which exercise improves cognition in humans is still somewhat unclear, research has discovered that, in some instances, exercise is able to facilitate the process of neuroplasticity. This is the fundamental brain mechanism through which your brain learns and remembers new information. It also helps to keep your mind flexible in response to changing situations. In other words, exercise can quite literally help to keep you on your toes – physically and mentally speaking!
More specifically, this facilitation seems to be mediated, in part, by a substance called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” – one of your brain’s wonder chemicals which helps it grow and develop from infancy through to adulthood and in doing so supports a huge range of ongoing neural processes which underpin your healthy cognition.
A brain-based antidote to stress.
By facilitating neuroplasticity and promoting the formation of new neuronal connections through the process of synaptogenesis, exercise, therefore, seems to work in the opposite way to stress which acts to disrupt neural connections in regions such as the hippocampus.
Different types of exercise – different benefit profiles.
Evidence also suggests that link between exercise and memory improvements is not straightforward. Instead, the type of exercise you do seems to matter, with short-term or acute bouts of high impact exercise seeming to be the most effective at showing immediate improvements in neuroplasticity and memory.
However, this isn’t to say that exercise such as Yoga and TaiChi don’t have their own beneficial impact profile on the brain. Different types of exercise simply modulate mood and cognition in different ways – something that scientists are just starting to explore in more depth.
New Year. New brain.
And so if you are one of the many people who are trying to set up the habit of doing regular exercise, or redesigning an existing habit or routine to incorporate a bout of strenuous exercise (think stairs not lift!) then it’s not just your health that will be better for it.
Your brain functioning and flexibility will be too.