Exercise for Brain Health

This blog discusses the benefits of cardiovascular exercise for brain health including memory and concentration.

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Image credit: Pexels Luna Lovegood

When I think back to grade school, certain kids stand out in my mind. Mikey is one of those kids. He had ADHD, though I did not know what that was at the time. 

Our third-grade teacher seemed to get it. Every day, mid-morning, Mrs. Burns would instruct Mikey to run “four full laps!” across the length of the building. Our school was pretty small, so four laps was the equivalent of 1/8 mile or less. All of us kids would watch Mikey, who was pretty fast, run, run, run his heart out.

“You’re doing great Mikey!! TWO. MORE. LAPS!” she would yell. He seemed to like it. We would pile on top of each other at the door between the classroom and outdoors to get a better view. 

Mikey had white-blond hair, thin and wiry, which seemed to dance in the air as he ran. His face would get red, which only made his freckles and the crease above his nose stand out. He would move his arms and shoulders more than necessary, which  exaggerated his efforts. He’d glance over now and then to make sure we were watching. Some of us would even time him and cheer him on to run faster. 


Back then, times were different. I’m sure the attention Mikey got wouldn’t fly these days, and perhaps someone would reprimand instead of commend our beloved teacher.  It seemed to help Mikey sit still and none of us seemed to care that it wasn’t us out there instead.  Regardless, sometime between math hour and lunch, we’d get to watch Mikey run. 

Mrs. Burns explained, “Mikey has more energy than most of us and has to burn it off so he can get his smarts on”. It seemed to work.  Movement in the classroom is now considered a healthy outlet and children are no longer expected to sit still for long periods.  

Enhanced brain function

I tell you about Mikey to make a point. Whether you are a hyperactive kid, a stressed-out adult, or just someone concerned about your mental health, movement helps your mind. It improves memory, attention and may enhance other mental functions too. In fact, just 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity can improve your concentration for 2 hours or more!

Research

Here’s the deets:

  1. Thirty to 45 minutes of age-appropriate aerobic exercise in healthy adults improves reasoning, problem solving, motor reflexes, comprehension, impulse-control, creativity and perseverance.
  2. Exercise improves memory by increasing brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a molecular factor that helps form new synapses that mediate learning and memory, making it easier to absorb information and form long-term memories.
  3. Moderate exercise reduces inflammatory, oxidative, and metabolic changes that contribute to brain disease states such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
  4. Acute bouts of moderately intense aerobic exercise (i.e. walking) may improve the cognitive control of attention, academic performance and mental health across a lifespan.
  5. Just 10 minutes of physical activity may be enough to release feel-good endorphins, endogenous cannabinoids and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being.

Summary

For most of my life, I’ve had trouble sitting still. I wasn’t hyperactive, like Mikey, but easily distracted. I’m much better at spending longer bouts of time in deep concentration these days, which I attribute to my yoga practice and regular exercise. ADHD is complicated and I’m not suggesting that exercise is the cure, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. And research shows its good for not just your body, but your brain.

References:

  1. Cambridge University Press | Acute Exercise Improves Prefrontal Cortex but not Hippocampal Function in Healthy Adults by Julia C Basso, Andrea Shang, Meredith Elman, Ryan Karmouta, Wendy A Suzuki
  2. Immunology & Cell Biology | Exercise and cytokines by Bente Klarlund Pedersen
  3. Cognitive Neuroscience | The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children by C.H.Hillman, M.B.Pontifex, L.B.Raine, D.M.Castelli, E.E.Hall, A.F.Kramer
  4. Endocrine | Exercise for the diabetic brain: how physical training may help prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in T2DM patients by Sebastian Bertram, Klara Brixius & Christian Brinkmann
  5. Neuropsychologia | Executive-related oculomotor control is improved following a 10-min single-bout of aerobic exercise: Evidence from the antisaccade task by AshnaSamani, MatthewHeath

*Image credit: Pexels Luna Lovegood

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