Our Brains Work Better with Physical Exercise

It’s obvious that regular exercise makes our muscles stronger, but a long list of research studies conducted over the last few years also suggest a powerful link between exercise and a healthy brain. In fact, getting the blood pumping appears to have multiple positive effects on the brain, including reduction of anxiety, increased decision-making skills and marked boosts in productivity through the entire lifespan.

Researchers think that physical exercise – especially the aerobic variety – actually changes the brain on behavioral and molecular levels, and that regular exercise triggers release of several important hormones, including serotonin, known to boost mood; norepinephrine, which affects motivation, attention span, and perception; and dopamine, which influences attention span and learning.

Exercise in the Early Years: Children and Adolescents

A few years ago, the New York Times reported on a study conducted by University of Illinois, which divided kids into groups of sedentary children and active children. The active kids performed better when exposed to a variety of cognitive challenges. MRI’s conducted on the active kids showed significantly larger areas of the brain involved in attention and the ability to coordinate thoughts and actions.

Previous studies conducted by University of Illinois indicated that even 20 minutes of brisk walking before a test raised test scores, even in children who were overweight or inactive.

Similarly, a Swedish study followed more than a million young soldiers and found that fitness was correlated with higher IQs – the higher the level of fitness, the higher the IQ. The results were apparent, even among identical twins.

Clinical trials in the United States looked at the results of after-school sports classes for children. It was no surprise that children got fitter, but kids who exercised regularly also displayed marked improvements in retaining information, multitasking and managing distractions.

Importance of Exercise in the Senior Years

Studies indicate that regular physical exercise stimulates development of new connections between cells in important areas of the brain, including the hippocampus — the area responsible for learning and memory.

Several studies, including one performed by the University of British Columbia in Canada, suggest that regular aerobic exercise may actually boost the size of the hippocampus. Further research shows that formerly sedentary seniors display significant increases in brain volume after participating in aerobic fitness training for six months.

Unfortunately, the same results weren’t present for individuals who did only toning and stretching. Results are most pronounced in those who exercise for at minimum of 30 minutes three times a week, for at least six months.

Harvard University Health Publications says that exercise that gets the heart pumping and works up a light sweat is most effective, such as a brisk walk, dancing, playing tennis, or even vigorous housecleaning or gardening.

Seniors who exercise are better able to focus on complex tasks, including making plans for the future and thinking in abstract terms. Regular physical activity keeps the brain healthy well into the senior years, and may even delay the development of dementia. However, exercise is more effective in this regard if a program is started before cognitive difficulties are apparent.

A Note about Exercise and Addiction

If you or somebody you love is struggling with addiction or is engaged in drug and alcohol treatment or rehab, exercise can be a tremendous benefit during and after recovery. In addition to improving brain function, regular exercise can also relieve tension and stress, improve sleep, boost self-confidence, increase energy and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.

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