Exercise produces more than physical benefits. The mental effects of exercise are second to none. We typically view the mental effects of exercise as secondary to physical benefits. Yet, they’re as important. Throughout this article, we’re going to take a look at the effects of exercise on the brain.
Structure of the Brain
Before we dive into how exercise affects the brain, let’s first recap the brain’s structure. The human brain is made up of the cerebrum, brain stem, and cerebellum. The cerebrum receives and interprets information received from the body. It then develops a response. Within the cerebrum, we have six lobes; frontal, parietal, occipital, temporal, limbic, and insular. Within each of these lobes are further subcategories. The two main areas we’re going to be focusing on are the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus:
- Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex is located in the frontal lobe. It is responsible for focus, decision-making, attention, and personality.
- Hippocampus: The hippocampus is located in the temporal lobe. It is responsible for forming and retaining memories.
Benefits of Exercise on the Brain
Studies have shown exercise improves your mood, energy, memory, and attention. Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University, identified three primary effects of exercise on the brain in her 2017 TEDWomen talk.
Immediate Effects of Exercise on the Brain
A single bout of exercise improves your ability to shift your focus and attention for at least two hours post-exercise. You will also notice an improvement in your reaction times. Additionally, exercise increases the release of “feel-good” neurotransmitters. Including dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin. These chemicals are key mood regulators. They can help relieve your levels of stress and pain. They can also improve your mood, confidence, sense of wellbeing, appetite, and sleep cycles. The effects of these neurotransmitters are not limited to your brain, but your overall wellbeing.
Long-Term Effects of Exercise on the Brain
Regular exercise over time improves your attention, focus, and memory. Long-term effects occur due to anatomical, physiological, and functional changes within the brain. Exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells within the hippocampus. Enlargement of the hippocampus helps improve your long-term memory.
Protective Effects of Exercise on the Brain
Like our skeletal muscles, the more we train our brain, the bigger and stronger it gets. Exercise stimulates growth and function in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. This is highly notable as they’re the two areas most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline. The research surrounding the protective effects of exercise on the brain is still in its early days. Therefore, we cannot definitively say regular exercise will prevent these conditions. However, we do know it can prolong their development.
Exercise and Neurodegenerative Conditions
Alzheimer’s and other dementias can be caused by a range of aging, genetic, medical, and lifestyle factors. Approximately 33% of dementias are attributable to modifiable risk factors such as inactivity, smoking, and hypertension. Besides the increase in neuroprotective drugs, exercise is also being looked at as a preventive strategy across all ages.
Research has also identified a strong link between exercise and the delay of neurodegenerative symptoms. Including motor skills and mental capacity decline in patients suffering from neuro diseases such as multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
How To Train for the Brain
Dr. Wendy Suzuki suggests aerobic exercise three to four times a week for a minimum of 30 minutes is enough to gain the protective effects of exercise on the brain. This type of exercise doesn’t have to be a dedicated session. It can be as simple as a power walk around the neighbourhood, or a family bike ride. When programming your client’s sessions, aim to include aerobic sessions in and around structured workouts.
Exercise has the power to improve your client’s physical and mental health. It can improve your mood, focus, attention, and memory in the short-term and long-term. It also protects your brain against neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline. Programming 30 minutes of aerobic exercise into your client’s training plan three to four times a week is enough to reap these benefits. In turn, your clients can live a higher quality of life over a longer period.
Alty, J., Farrow, M., & Lawler, K. (2020). Exercise and dementia prevention. Practical neurology, 20(3), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1136/practneurol-2019-002335
Basso, J. C., & Suzuki, W. A. (2017). The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain plasticity (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 2(2), 127–152. https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040
Mahalakshmi, B., Maurya, N., Lee, S. D., & Bharath Kumar, V. (2020). Possible Neuroprotective Mechanisms of Physical Exercise in Neurodegeneration. International journal of molecular sciences, 21(16), 5895. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21165895