- According to experts, exercise changes the brain in various beneficial ways.
- An expert told Insider it can boost the part of the brain associated with memory.
- Exercise can also make the brain more resistant to deterioration as we age.
Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain.
Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural sciences and psychology at New York University, said not only does your brain feel some benefits immediately after training, but years of repeated exercise can permanently alter your brain and improve your cognitive health. And Teresa Liu-Ambrose, who studies healthy aging and cognition at the University of British Columbia, said that as long as you keep moving throughout your life, exercise makes the brain more resilient to deterioration as you age.
They also told Insider that long-term exercise was associated with more efficient brain function, growth in the brain’s memory center, and faster connections in the region associated with concentration.
Exercise floods the brain with ‘feel-good’ neurochemicals
Suzuki, who is the author of the books “Healthy Brain, Happy Life” and “Good Anxiety”, said that during and immediately after exercise, your brain releases a “bubble bath” of neurochemicals like endorphins, serotonin and dopamine which decrease anxiety and make you feel good.
“Endorphins seem to be associated with that runner’s high — that happy, exuberant feeling,” she said.
In addition to making you happy, dopamine also increases your focus right after your workout because the part of the brain associated with attention uses dopamine to function, according to Suzuki.
Sport stimulates the growth of neurons
The researchers found that exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons in the region of the brain primarily associated with memory, called the hippocampus, Suzuki said. These new brain cells then integrate with the rest of the hippocampus, physically enlarging the area and increasing your memory capacity.
Exercise also impacts the size of the prefrontal cortex, located just behind your forehead, by increasing the thickness of a section of brain cells called axons, she said.
“The axon is coated with an insulating substance called myelin which essentially speeds up electrical activity through the neuron,” Suzuki said. “The more myelin, the faster it goes. It’s one of the things that differentiates humans from other animals that don’t have our cognitive power. We have more myelin, which speeds up our connections. With exercise, you get more myelin.”
Exercise can keep your brain healthy as you age
Suzuki said the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are also very susceptible to deterioration with age. “So those are the two areas that you lose over time,” she said. “With regular exercise – the more you do it throughout your life – you build a big fluffy fat hippocampus, a big fluffy prefrontal cortex. And you don’t cure dementia or you don’t cure aging, but you “I make these two sensitive brain areas as strong and powerful as possible. So it literally takes longer for aging to have its effect.”
Liu-Ambrose said that between the ages of around 50 and 60, the hippocampus shrinks about 1-2% each year, and exercise has been shown to reduce the rate of this shrinkage. Exercise also helps prevent the spread of small vessel brain disease, in which small strokes occur throughout the brain and increase your risk of dementia.
In general, Suzuki said, exercise helps form new blood vessels, which can reduce the effects of strokes as we age.
Finally, Liu-Ambrose said exercise can make the brain work more efficiently as we age. She said older brains often need to recruit more brain regions for the same task.
“After exercise, what happens is that the brain can become more efficient, which means you recruit fewer regions of the brain, but for better performance,” she said.
Changing your exercise might be better for your brain
Suzuki said learning a new skill has generally been shown to benefit your brain, so trying new exercises may give you increased brain benefits. Doing a new exercise, she says, builds new circuits in your motor cortex.
“If you just do the same exercise over and over again, and it becomes more rote, and it’s not challenging in a new way, is it better to challenge yourself and try something different? harder? Yes, it is. It will engage a bigger or different part of your brain, and it’s always good to mix things up that way,” she said.
Adding new moves to your weightlifting routine, cross-training, or taking a kickboxing or zumba class could be a fun way to do this, she said.
Although aerobic cardiovascular exercise has been the most studied, she said there is no “best” exercise for brain health. Your brain will benefit from any physical activity that gets your heart rate up.
“Every drop of sweat counts. The more you train, the more you see the benefits,” Suzuki said.
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