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Is Physical Exercise the Secret to Keeping Your Brain Healthy and Strong?

Updated on November 26, 2015
Becca Linn profile image

My greatest passion is empowering others to improve their quality of life and achieve their goals by choosing healthy thoughts and habits.


Does Physical Exercise Strengthen the Brain More Than Mental Exercise?

Many of us have grown up familiar with the popular saying, "use it or lose it." This phrase is true in a lot of aspects including brain capacity, but it turns out that cross word puzzles and sudoku puzzles might not be the best way to keep your brain young.

While mental exercises help the brain maintain it's faculties to an extent, it looks like physical exercise might be even more beneficial.

Interestingly enough, studies show that people who regularly do a specific type of mental exercise improve the ability of their brains to work in that particular capacity, but that doesn't translate to how the brain works in other areas.

That means you could be a pro at doing crossword puzzles, but still not remember where you put the car keys last night.

In contrast, physical exercise has been shown to help improve thinking and thought processing speed in all areas.

Alzheimer's disease and other forms of Dementia affect the lives of so many individuals and families in the world today that some people say it's an epidemic.

According to the Alzheimer's Association more than half a million Americans die from Alzheimer's disease each year, and it is the number six leading cause of death in America.

Wouldn't it be nice if we could turn those statistics around by simply creating a healthy culture where more people participate in a regular exercise program?

Some research even suggests that women who stay active through their pregnancies often end up giving birth to smarter babies.

If you're looking for a proven effective way to keep your mind quick and sharp, it might be that you don't have to look much further than the nearest treadmill.

Was it surprising to you that physical exercise is better for the brain than mental exercise?

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How Does Physical Exercise Strengthen the Brain?

Exercise increases the amount of a molecule called irisin that your brain produces.

With increased irisin, your brain is able to better utilize brain derived neurothophic factor (BDNF), a protein that improves thinking ability and helps protect the brain against degeneration.

BDNF has been referred to as "Miracle-Gro for the brain” by Harvard psychiatrist, John J. Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Who doesn't wish that they could increase their brain's capability to grow and function in a miraculous fashion rather than sitting back and observing the slow (or in some cases not so slow) deterioration of the brain with age?

"Cardiovascular health is more important than any other single factor in preserving and improving learning and memory," says Thomas Crook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and memory researcher. "You're working out your brain at the same time as your heart."

According to an article in the New York Times, a study involving 120 senior citizens showed that those who participated in a program of walking regularly had an increase in hippocampus size as opposed to those who did not participate in the walking program who experienced noticeable atrophy leading to hipopcampus shrinkage.

Are There Some Types of Exercise That Are More Beneficial Than Others?

Most studies involving exercise's effect on the brain have been done using aerobic exercise, but there is some evidence that weight lifting and other strenuous exercises could be beneficial as well.

In the study noted above where senior citizens who participated in a regular walking program experienced an increase in hippocampus matter, the other group of senior citizens who experienced deterioration and atrophy were participating in a stretching program.

While stretching does have many benefits, it appears that as far as BDNF goes, it does not have the same effect that more strenuous exercise does.

If you are in good enough shape to include short intervals of high intensity (such as sprints) in your workout, this can really step up your brain capacity.

There was actually a study done in Germany that showed some astounding results in the brain for people who do high intensity interval training.

It compared the effects of jogging on a treadmill at a steady pace for 40 minutes to jogging with 2 minute intervals of sprints interspersed throughout a 40 minute workout.

Those who added in sprints not only produced more BDNF, but were able to memorize new vocabulary words 20% faster than those in the other group.


How Much Exercise Does It Take to Create a Noticeable Improvement in Cognition and Overall Brain Health?

The simple answer to this question is that any amount of exercise is going to improve brain function.

You've probably noticed an improvement in mood and an increase in alertness after exercising for even a fairly short period of time, and it turns out that research supports the idea that it's not all in your head.

Study participants show noticeable improvement in cognitive skills after exercising regardless of whether they participate in a regular exercise program or it's their first time exercising in years.

On the other hand, for long term results such as enlarging the hipocampus (which is known to slowly deteriorate as people age), you need to exercise for at least 30 minutes three times a week.

The more consistent your exercise routine is, the more beneficial it will be to your brain in the long term.

Do you think it's worth the time and effort physical exercise requires if it can keep your brain healthy and strong longer?

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Is It Possible to Overdo it?

Interestingly enough, while moderate exercise is a good thing for the brain, it is possible to exercise to an extent that it becomes counterproductive.

Studies done by Justin Rhodes, Ph.D, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland found that mice who ran obsessively day and night showed a decreased ability to navigate a maze that previously hadn't been all that challenging to them.

This study suggests that while high intensity exercise in moderation improved brain function, it's not wise to take that exercise to a level that is too extreme and strenuous on a regular basis.


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