Exercise and the Brain

The brain is amazingly dynamic. It is is not a fixed organ and, as such, it is pliable and plastic. New research indicates that there is in fact a real connection between exercise and brain health and in turn, life long learning. Neuro-plasticity indicates that the brain is not hard-wired. The brain responds to exercise much the way the body ( heart, lungs and muscles) does. The brain actually changes its structure and function by building new neurons, creating new connections between neurons ( synapses) and also creating brand new blood vessels.

Physical activity ( endurance, strength and skill training) changes the neuro-chemistry, structure and function of the brain:

– Motor skill training builds synapses.
– Endurance training builds blood vessels.
– Strength training builds synapses.

These changes in the brain impact our cognitive, sensory, motor and emotional behaviors.
Furthermore, the neuro-biological changes can help treat and possibly prevent a number of mental disorders such as depression and anxiety and neurological disorders such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Exercise Improves Cognitive Function:

Research indicates that aerobic training improves cognitive performance in both children ( better verbal, perceptual and mathematical test scores) and adults ( decreasing age -related risks for cognitive impairment and dementia). Exercise increases the supply of glucose and oxygen that brain neurons require for function and longevity. Neuro-chemicals known as “growth factors” increase in the brain in both number and size during exercise. These growth factors keep neurons healthy and reduce their susceptibility to cell death – combating the onset of certain neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise Changes Brain Function:

Active individuals show greater baseline levels of cortical activity and more activity in various brain regions when performing cognitive tests ( cerebral cortex).
Brain areas that are engaged during movement are also affected ( motor cortex).

Exercise Changes Brain Structure:

Research indicates that exercise boosts overall brain volume ( both grey and white matter).
Also aerobic exercise increases neuro-genesis ( generation of new neurons) within the hippocampus ( involved with memory formation and processing emotions) at many developmental stages – neonatal, juvenile, adult. The enhanced neuro-genesis benefit of exercise may be the neuro-biological mechanism by which regular exercise reduces depression.

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