Exercise and your brain
With so many recent changes to daily life, I am ever grateful that we are still able go outside for fresh air and exercise. As I try to incorporate some sort of physical activity into my daily routine, I’ve been thinking more and more about how this activity is not only providing me with a much needed sense of freedom, but also helping my body and in particular, my brain.
We all know that exercise is good for our physical health, strengthening muscles and bones and reducing weight and risk of disease. We also know that it helps us mentally by releasing wonderful chemicals that help us feel calm, reducing stress and anxiety. We know exercise is great therapy and a powerful anti-depressant, often more effective than medication. And we know it improves longevity. Perhaps a lesser-known fact is that exercise also helps keep our brain healthy and active, improves memory and potentially reduces our vulnerability to dementia.
When I was growing up I remember learning that we are born with a finite number of brain cells and that we would lose some of these over the course of our lifetime due to fever, toxins such as alcohol and ageing, and what’s more, once they were gone that was that! This reflected the thinking of the time that our brain could not regenerate itself. Neuroscience has now shown that this is not the case at all. Our brains are in fact ‘plastic’ meaning they can continue to grow and develop new neural connections allowing us to learn new skills throughout our lifespan. ‘Neuroplasticity’ is the brain’s ability to keep changing and developing throughout our lives.
So, what does this have to do with exercise? Aerobic exercise produces a protein (BDNF) that changes stem cells in the brain into neurons (a process called neurogenesis) and helps consolidate connections between these neurons. It is these new neural connections or neural pathways that enable us to learn new skills or change patterns of thinking or behaviour. By adulthood, our brains already have 100 trillion neural connections, which were for the most part, consolidated during adolescence while practicing new skills and ways of functioning in the world.
The good news is that our brains have the capacity for lifelong learning and aerobic exercise facilitates this by increasing the brain’s capacity to form new neurons and new neural connections. Exercise improves brain plasticity. Exercise improves learning and memory.
I found an old violin in the back of a cupboard a while back and I have been trying to teach myself to play. It seems incredible to me that riding my bike in the park can actually help me to learn to play the violin! Not only that, but neural pathways in the brain are responsible for everything we think, feel and do. So, exercise can help form new pathways that will enable me to change my thinking patterns or help me improve my mood or achieve whatever it is that I’m wanting to change or learn. Of course, it takes time, effort, and energy to learn something new or change an old habit and it can be quite a painful process (just ask anyone who has heard my violin practice!). Nevertheless, it is now well established, that good brain plasticity will improve your success when taking on a new challenge, improve your memory and protect the brain in the ageing process. Good brain plasticity is the key to lifelong learning.
During this lockdown period, while we are waiting, waiting for the return of normalcy and waiting to begin treatment, the choice to exercise is one way to create opportunity from diversity. It’s a valuable way to invest in yourself. Exercise nurtures your body and soul. Exercise can ease your frustration and lift your mood. Exercise can help you achieve new goals that you may now have the time to pursue, whether it be tackling DIY at home, studying or trying to change old patterns of behaviour or thinking. And exercise will help you develop a healthy, plastic brain that will enable you to continue to grow and effectively manage the challenges of the future.
Arden, J. B. (2010). Rewire your brain: Think your way to a better life. John Wiley & Sons: NewJersey, USA
Arden, J. B. (2012). AARP rewire your brain: Think your way to a better life. John Wiley & Sons: NewJersey, USA
Hassed, C., & Chambers, R. (2014). Mindful Learning: Reduce stress and improve brain performance for effective learning. Exisle Publishing: Auckland, New Zealand.
Wilson, R. Z. (2014). Neuroscience for Counsellors: Practical Applications for Counsellors, Therapists and Mental Health Practitioners. Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London, UK
Perlmutter, D (2014). Neurogenesis: Grow New Brain Cells With Exercise. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4NfYd4wq7o
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