athlete crouched at start line
Health / Mental health

Great benefits of exercise on the brain

We’ve all heard the age old adage “what’s good for the body is good for the brain”! But understanding why exercise so important can help kick start good habits.

Chemical effects

When we exercise, skeletal muscles (those attached to bones) are pulled and stretched. While they move, they release myokines, sometimes known as hope chemicals due to the impact they have on the brain. One of these hope chemicals, brain-derived neutotrophic factor, has been shown to play an active role in growth of new brain cells. It also helps improve learning and memory. Encouraging growth can help specifically in dementia and mental health conditions as lack of new cells has been implicated in these conditions.

females using weights at the gym

Insulin-growth factor 1 (another myokine), released during strength training has been shown to enhance growth and survival of hormones. Exercise also directly increases neurotransmitters such as GABA, glutamate and dopamine. This helps neurons communicate and have been shown to improve memory and mood.

Blood pressure effects

The brain uses an extraordinary amount of energy and therefore anything that helps ensure this supply is vital. Exercise helps keep blood pressure down and helps keep blood vessels healthy. High blood pressure is associated with dementia and reduction in cognitive performance.

Other effects

Exercising with other people is a great way to connect and defeat loneliness. Set the right achievable goal has been shown to lead to increased motivation and satisfaction. Having mastery over our life has been shown to improve clarity of thinking and enable us to be more committed in all aspects of life.

disabled friends together

Being able to switch off from the stresses and strains of life and connect with something greater than ourselves, e.g. nature, helps reduce stress and worries as well as boost mood. Check out NHS, Every Mind Matters, for more information.

Which exercise is best?

Most important is that you enjoy it as how you feel during the exercise enable you to go back to it and keep up the healthy habit.

Studies have compared low intensity aerobic exercise with intense anaerobic exercise (e.g. high intensity interval training (HIIT)) and resistance training. HIIT appeared to offer more cognitive improvements. A study looking at cognitive function in patients with mild cognitive impairment or dementia showed resistance training, when you use weights, bands or body weight to increase muscle strength results in greater release of myokines.

Team sports have the added benefit of the social side. It’s important to consider these if you’re struggling with social withdrawal or feelings of isolation.

Directly stimulating cognitive function may be beneficial, for example exercise that requires moving and thinking at the same time e.g. rock climbing or martial arts. Some believe the need for our ancestors, while hunter-gathering, to navigate. communicate and scan the environment for threat is what drove them to develop larger, smarter brains.

Challenging ourselves during exercise may be key and will be different for each individual. Therefore there’s no one-size-fits all and it’s important to find an activity that suits you and you can maintain.

Information of this article was gathered from New Scientist and other sources quoted on this page.