We all know about the extent of benefits exercise has for our physical health. But what is even more profound, and less commonly known, is the amount of benefit exercise has for our brain health.
Exercise has been shown to:
- Increase blood flow to the brain immediately. This delivers nutrients to our cells, creating more healthier cells and connections.
- This happens in the memory centre of our brain too, the ‘hippocampus’, so you are going to improve the health of your cells and connections in the memory part of your brain.
- Because of this, the hippocampus can actually grow in size with just exercise alone.
- It’s not surprising then, that they’ve found memory improves with exercise.
- Not only this, but it also increases the size of the front part of the brain, the ‘frontal lobe’, which is important for planning, organising and mental speed and agility.
- So all of these things improve, as well as memory, with exercise.
- But what else? Exercise can directly grow new brain cells, and even just three months of it can increase cell growth (neurogenesis) by 50%.
- It also directly grows new connections, and three months of exercise can increase numbers of connections by 150%. Again, some of this happens in the hippocampus.
- It significantly increases levels of a chemical, a growth factor called BDNF, that is responsible for growing new connections, is good for brain function and has a role in mental health. This happens after just 3 days.
- Increases some other growth factors as well, VEGF and IGF-1, that also improve brain function, and reduces inflammation.
Plus we already know the effect exercise has on the feel good chemicals in our brain.
So, physical activity works on every single level of neuroplasticity. Its changes start happening immediately, and the big structural changes only take a few months.
With all of these effects, if exercise was a drug, it would be the most prescribed drug in history. We would all be on it! Researchers are currently trying to put just some of the effects of exercise into a pill, however often not without side effects. And, to be honest, to get every single benefit that exercise has, for our mind and our body, into one pill would be impossible. Plus, we can all access it for free, anytime.
So what kind of exercise?
It’s been shown that a good mix of aerobic, or cardio, and resistance (or strength) training is best. Ultimately, we should all be exercising every day for at least 30 minutes. However, even 3-5 days per week is good. If you’re not puffed and sweaty, it doesn’t count!
The hardest part is getting started. A little progress each day adds up to big results! The happier, healthier you will thank you.