Do you know how to protect your brain from the devastating effects of degenerative diseases? This may sound all gloom and doom and clickbait-y, but it is actually not. Neuroscientists have carried out research into how to improve our cognitive abilities as well as mental health and have found that exercise is key. Yes! Physical exercise like walking, swimming, or dancing can have positive effects on our brain and boost its health. Also, regular exercise reduces the odds of developing diabetes, stroke, or heart disease. According to this study, regular physical activity can contribute to the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia.
Remember this the next time you bail out of a workout!
The benefits of exercise on the brain
Exercise, Attention, and Memory
Different studies suggest that one of the long-term effects of exercise is improved attention functions. The parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who do not. Synaptogenesis, the forming of new synapses that influence learning and memory, is increased by exercise, thus making it easier to grasp information and form long-term memories.
Also, our brain needs a large number of nutrients to perform its functions, memory and focus being but two of them. As physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, we can say it feeds our brain with all the goodness it needs to improve its capacity and strength.
Experts recommend aerobic activities, like playing tennis, running, or swimming, as they increase your heart rate and improve circulation.
Exercise and cognitive abilities
Everyone experiences a certain amount of cognitive decline, which is normal in aging. However, some people start to see symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Doing physical activity increases the size of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which can delay -but not cure- the onset of degenerative diseases.
Scientists have found that exercise promotes the birth of brain cells, as well as improving synapsis, which is the way brain cells communicate. Both processes help improve cognitive functions like reasoning, complex idea comprehension, or problem solving.
Exercise and mental and physical health
Physical exercise, particularly aerobic activity, is known to:
- Dramatically reduce insulin resistance and improve blood glucose control.
- Stimulate the immune system to produce an anti-inflammatory reaction.
- Release hormones like serotonin and dopamine.
- Strengthen bones and muscles.
- Help keep a healthy weight.
- Increase heart rate and pump more oxygen to the brain.
- Improve mood.
- Reduce stress and anxiety.
As you can see, regular exercise also promotes mental health. The release of substances like dopamine, a.k.a. the feel-good hormone, provides a sense of pleasure, reward, and motivation to keep going. Another hormone, serotonin, plays an essential role in mood and digestion, among other body functions. The release of such substances helps decrease anxiety, depression, and stress. Dr. Wendy Suzuki, neuroscientist and professor, calls it “a neurochemical bubble bath for your brain”. Exercise also improves sleep.
No Time for the Gym? Here Are Some Alternatives
You do not need to become a professional athlete to enjoy the rewards of physical activity. Experts recommend doing between 90 and 120 minutes a week. But what happens if you are too busy or cannot afford a gym membership? No matter. Here are a few alternatives that can get your body and brain moving:
- Do household activities like vacuuming or raking leaves.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Go mall walking.
- Go for a brisk walk around the neighborhood.
- Climb stairs up and down.
- Crank up the music and dance like nobody is watching.
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