It is becoming increasingly obvious that the benefits of regular exercise go far beyond what was thought of conventionally. Of course exercise can help you lose weight, feel better, increase strength and reduce risk of injury. It also increases bone density, reduces anxiety, combats depression and prevents heart disease. But these are just some of the effects we have mentioned in previous columns. What’s truly amazing is these effects only scratch the surface of what can be gained by exercising regularly. There is one more effect which we are coming to understand more fully, and that is that exercise actually makes you smarter. There is a steadily growing mountain of evidence that proves that regular exercise is directly linked to improved brain health and function.
At some level, this has always been known. It was Plato who said, “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”
What we have come to learn about brain health and function is that often it is directly linked to our lifestyles. Sedentary and stress filled lifestyles are toxic to the body and especially the brain. Connections between brain cells erode and certain areas of the brain actually shrink in proportion to the amount of stress we feel and during episodes of chronic depression. Exercise literally reverses this process by increasing levels of serotonin and norepinephrine (important neurotransmitters associated with positive thoughts and emotions). Exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that bolster the brains infrastructure and helps build new connections. Growing and maintaining the complex network of connections between brain cells is what differentiates a healthy brain from a less than healthy brain prone to memory loss, confusion, and dysfunction.
To dig further into the specific neurotransmitters of the brain and how specifically they are affected by activity is fascinating for sure, but it is the stuff that comprises volumes of medical literature. Without getting too far into the weeds, the message at hand is that the most important neurotransmitters like IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor), VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) and BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) are all positively affected by exercise and have a ‘miracle grow,’ like effect on brain function and therefore intelligence.
Perhaps the best news is that it doesn’t take hours of exercise a day to realize these benefits. In previous articles, we have described how simply walking 30-60 minutes a day can provide you with unbelievable health benefits. To have walking also provide your brain with the aforementioned benefits, it is recommended that walking be at a pace which is challenging, but not at a level which you cannot maintain over the course of an hour (about 60 percent of your max hearth rate). In addition to simply walking, it is also recommended to alternate activities and movements in the form of dance, swim, or yoga — anything, in fact, that pushes you to move your body in new and different ways.