Getting fit is often seen as a way to get body-wide benefits inside and out — from a leaner and stronger physique to better cardiovascular health. But another organ surprisingly also sees plenty of advantages when you work up a sweat: your brain.
“Your brain is wired to respond positively to exercise,” says Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD, author of “Habits of a Happy Brain.” “When you exercise consistently, your brain gets even more efficient at making and releasing the natural chemicals that keep you upbeat, like serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.”
That means by working out, you’re basically creating your own anti-depressant. But that’s just the start. Here’s a look at some of the ways exercise can literally change your brain, plus the benefits you might see as a result.
Cardiovascular exercise has been associated with better cognitive function and studies note that when people do high-intensity activity, they tend to increase brain volume. With more volume comes a better ability to complete complex tasks, according to Matthew Capolongo, a NASM performance enhancement specialist and a coach at New York-based Professional Athletic Performance Center. He notes that this can include problem solving, information processing and multitasking.
Consider taking a HIIT class before your next big, multitask project at work — it could make your brain operate better as a result.
IMPROVED MEMORY AND LEARNING
According to a recent study, it only takes about six weeks of aerobic exercise to increase the size of your hippocampus, the part of the brain that’s largely responsible for memory formation and learning activity.
In addition to increasing the size of the hippocampus, exercising can also change what’s happening in this area. The hippocampus has the unique capacity to generate new neurons every day — up to 700 of them, according to neurologist Majid Fotuhi, MD, chairman of Memosyn Neurology Institute. Unfortunately, most of these neurons don’t survive unless they have support from the body to grow.
Exercising not only increases the production of neurons, Dr. Fotuhi notes, but also helps those young neurons thrive. That can be a significant boost for memory. In fact, he adds that some studies have suggested that walking just a mile a day might lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by nearly 40 percent.
SLOWER BRAIN AGING
Like the body, the brain ages and can show signs of deterioration along the way. But exercise can slow the process, according to a recent study.
Researchers asked 1,228 men and women about their exercise habits, then tested their cognitive abilities, including reasoning, thinking speed, memory and organization. They followed up five years later with the same tests on about half the study group.
They found those who did more physical activity during the five-year period scored higher on the cognitive ability tests than those who were more sedentary. One possible link, the researchers suggested, is exercise can lower risk factors that impair blood flow to the brain, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.
Not only does staying physically active lower the chances you’ll deal with those other chronic issues, but it also confers brain benefits along the way.
EXERCISE = BRAIN POWER
The advantages of exercise in terms of brain health may be helpful to keep in mind — no pun intended — if you’re struggling to stay on track with your goals or hitting a plateau. Remember that even if you’re not seeing physical results right now, your brain could be bulking up in the background and making huge improvements that will serve you well into the future.
Written by Elizabeth Millard, a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness. She’s also an organic farmer, yoga teacher, obstacle course aficionado and 5K junkie.