Why Exercise Is The Key To A Healthy Brain!
MAXIM Australia|June 2019

MAXIM’s resident Clinical Nutritionist, Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSC Nut Med), explains why exercise is the key to a healthy brain…

Brooke Benson Campbell

There are plenty of reasons to be physically active — losing weight, lowering blood pressure, decreasing the odds of developing heart disease and diabetes, lowering the incidence of stroke… the list goes on.

However, new research suggests that exercise isn’t all about your body. In fact, scientists believe that the real reason we, as humans, are primed to exercise is to support brain health, meaning that the benefits of physical activity are more than just muscle-deep. And it’s not just modern science that is convinced. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Nikola Tesla — all celebrated figures of evolutionary and industrial development, and all known for their extraordinary brain power AND addiction to exercise. Einstein’s daily 5km walk was an essential part of his daily regime, Darwin allowed for three 45-minute walks throughout the day to enhance brain function and creativity, while Tesla reportedly performed nightly foot exercises with the goal of improving brain function, and walked up to 16km per day. He was even reported to perform daily exercises in the bath to capitalize on every opportunity for movement. And while a daily synchronized swimming bathroom regime may not be an option, the takeaway is clear. To change your brain, move your body.

Hunting, running, foraging and climbing — humans evolved to move and those movements encouraged brain growth that gradually separated us from other animals. But how did this happen? How did the brain transform and mature to develop creativity, emotional intelligence, and heightened memory? New research has shown that physical activity stresses our brains in the same way that it stresses our muscles. Like active muscle fibers, neurons of the brain break down then recover to become stronger and more resilient with exercise, making physical activity the key to improved performance. So, how does physical activity boost brainpower? Well, it…

1 BOOSTS MEMORY RETENTION & LEARNING CAPACITY

In a study performed at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping and sweat glands flowing) appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in memory and recall. Many studies have supported this claim, suggesting that people who exercise have a larger prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex (parts of the brain that control thinking and learning). A study published in Brain and Cognition found that after just 30 minutes of completing an easy 30-minute bike ride, subjects completed cognitive skills test faster than they did before exercising, and just as accurately. This effect lasted for nearly 60 minutes of post-activity.

The brain literally grows each time you lace up your Nikes and pound the pavement. In fact, German researchers showed that walking or cycling during, but not before, learning helped new foreign language vocabulary to stick, so bringing your work to the treadmill may be the answer. If this sounds too hard, another German study found that just 10 minutes of playful coordination skill (like bouncing two balls at the same time) improved attention span in a large group of teenagers for four hours post-activity. An argument for the office hand-ball tournament.

Interestingly, different types of physical activity appear to enhance different areas of memory. Liu-Ambrose compared the effects of walking versus weight-training in brain enhancement for one hour twice a week over a six-month period. While both groups improved their spatial memory (in charge of things like where you left that pesky piece of paper on your paper-filled desk), those who walked also saw improvements in episodic memory (the ability to recall an event or episode in your life). In contrast, people who lifted weights saw greater gains in associative memory (remembering a name when you see a familiar face) while a stretching group saw no memory gains.

Another experiment in 2007 showed that cognitive flexibility and learning improves after just one 35 minute treadmill session at between 60-70% of maximum heart rate. Cognitive flexibility allows us to shift thinking and switch between topics, and the trait correlates with high performance, so if you have an afternoon pitch to perfect, a lunchtime run could be a smart idea.

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