Here’s another reason to dust off your sneakers and get moving, the benefit to the brain. Not only does the brain have nutritional needs, it has physical needs as well. The human body is a system of systems. At the head of those systems is the brain (pun intended). We know exercise has huge benefits to the body, chief among them being weight loss and cardiovascular health. A team of researchers at Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois looked at the impact of physical activity on mice. The gist of their experiments showed that despite other mental stimuli the mice that had running wheels in their cages demonstrated more cognitive function than those that didn’t. Researchers are uncovering more brain-specific benefits of exercise and some of them may surprise you.
Reduce and/or Prevent Depression
Depression is a clinical diagnosis that should not be confused with the emotion of depression. When someone has clinical depression there is a biochemical imbalance of the brain causing a feeling of malaise, doom, fatigue and a whole host of other symptoms. Medical management of this condition is meant to help restore the balance of the biochemicals with manufactured ones. Some medications are to treat the symptoms versus the cause. But there may be hope for those battling depression and for those interested in warding off depression all together. How?
First, exercise increases the level of serotonin in the brain which impacts the level of endorphins, the feel-good hormones. You may know of endorphins in the form of the runner’s high. After a certain amount of time running the body releases endorphins. This makes the runner want to run more and feel great about it. Serotonin and endorphins combat the imbalance that can lead to depression. Second, it also helps with other depression triggers such as stress and sleep deprivation. Third, exercise can help reduce overall levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, that throws the other systems way of out of whack. Exercise also helps generate an enzyme that metabolizes kynurenine, another biochemical released by stress. That enzyme is thought to be created by the muscles. The more muscle mass potentially the more enzyme generated.
Anyone suffering from clinical depression should seek the advice of a mental medical professional. One aspect of a treatment regimen to strongly consider is does it include lifestyle changes such as getting more exercise, especially out in the sun. Depression is such a taboo topic today and people may be reluctant to seek out help. If left untreated clinical depression can not only devastate lives, it can destroy families.
Protect, Grow and Regenerate Your Brain
There is research that points to exercise having a restorative effect on the brain. It has long been held that doing mental exercises such as puzzles or learning something new will prompt brain cells to multiply and potentially prevent diminished cognitive function. There is increasing speculation that physical exercise does this and more. Remember that study from the Beckman Institute? Some of their findings showed that in mice exercise triggered stem cells to convert into neurons by releasing a protein called neurotrophic factors, BDNF. Not just that, compounds that may protect nerves get released as well. Scientists aren’t exactly sure of the mechanism of action yet, but the implications for fighting diseases such as Alzheimer’s is encouraging. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and with blood comes more oxygen and nutrients. But it also helps to reduce the levels of bone morphogenetic protein, BMP, in the blood by producing another protein called Noggin (hmmm, is this why a brain is called a noggin?). BMP can slow brain growth and make it less nimble.
BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, may also cause the brain to regenerate and increase the size of the hippocampus. After a work out there are increased levels of BDNF in the blood stream. This may be along the same lines as how the body builds muscle. Muscle isn’t built by weight lifting. Muscle is built because of weight lifting. Lifting weights causes small tears in the muscle fiber. The body wants to repair those tears and build the muscle up to be stronger so that it won’t tear as easily. Exercise potentially has the same effect on the brain. The brain becomes stronger in order to accommodate more physical activity. There’s a connection here because BDNF is also critical in signaling muscle growth. Without it muscles would atrophy. The body is a closed system of interconnected systems. As scientists learn more about the brain-body connection they are finding that the brain is doing more than just controlling the body by sending out signals. The brain is actually relying on its connection to other systems in order to function properly.
In fact, research suggests that as people get older they should get more exercise in order to keep the brain operating at peak efficiency. There is a recommendation to get 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day in addition to a regular exercise regimen in order to keep the body moving daily. An observational study published in the Neurology journal followed more than 600 seniors over the age of 70. Those with higher levels of activity showed less brain shrinkage over a period of three years. Typically people in this age range are losing between one and three percent of their hippocampus volume. The hippocampus is where memory resides.
What and How Much
There doesn’t seem to be a standard suggestion for the type of exercises and how much. It stands to reason that cardio and strength training are both important. It seems that the body benefits from any type of movement sustained over a long period or over several short bursts of activity. As there seems to be a connection between brain regeneration abilities and muscle growth, strength training is appropriate. Activities that require both dexterity and mental focus may give you the best bang for your buck. Soccer, for example, is a high cardio sport that requires eye-to-body coordination and quick decision making. This activity relies on multiple parts of the brain at once potentially triggering it to increase the number of brain cells. For older folks or people with different physical abilities doing light cardio carrying or using weights may have the same impact. Regardless, always check with your medical professional prior to starting an exercise regimen.
Your brain is your best ally in achieving your biggest life goals. If you feed it well and treat it right it will help you go places you never imagined.