There are a wide range of reasons to be physically active – reduce the chance of diseases such as diabetes and stroke, reduce blood pressure and heart disease, lose weight and even prevent depression. However, there may be one reason for getting off the couch that you have not even thought about: getting rid of that nasty brain fog and charge your brain through exercise.
Researchers at a study at the University of British Columbia recently found that aerobic exercise, which gets your heart beating, can improve the size of your hippocampus, the part of your brain which is involved in learning and memory. Other types of training that do not involve aerobic exercise such as balance and muscle toning did not have the same effect. With dementia on the rise globally, this finding is more important than ever.
How Exercise Helps the Brain
Exercise has long been known to help your brain in a number of ways – by reducing inflammation and insulin resistance, and by stimulating the growth factors or chemicals in the brain that affect brain cells and their overall health, an improvement in the growth of blood vessels and even a growth in the number of new brain cells.
Exercise can even improve sleep (very important for business students!) and moods by a reduction in anxiety and stress levels. Several of these factors can lead to depression or cognitive impairment if they are neglected. Studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex (thinking area of the brain) and the medial temporal cortex (memory area of the brain) are larger when people exercise than when they do not. Engaging in regular exercise over a period of six months or greater can even increase the volume of the brain, as shown in recent studies.
Mental functioning may be directly controlled by certain proteins known as brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), which directly promote the health of nerve cells. A recent study that followed young male college students with a sedentary lifestyle who tried a test both before and after 30 minutes of exhaustive aerobic exercise provides even more insight into this theory. A control set of students did not exercise and did not show this increase in brain proteins, and did approximately the same on the second set of tests as they did on their first tests – while the students in the study group who performed the thirty minutes of exercise did significantly better on the memory test after they had performed the exercise.
How Can You Test This Theory?
Just start exercising! That is the best way to see if the benefits of exercise are as great as they seem to be, just getting started is the hardest part. Not a huge amount of exercise is required, just about 120 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week, which can be broken down into a series of half an hour five days a week, or most of the days per week. Adding just a few minutes a day can help you see big gains while you work towards the goal of 120 – 150 minutes per week of moderately tiring exercise. If walking is not your favorite thing to do, consider trying something new like riding a mountain bike around campus, tennis, running, swimming, or even dancing or stair climbing or yoga. Any of these activities will get your heart pumping and your blood moving – even things as simple as raking the leaves, mopping your floor – anything that makes you break out in a light sweat shows that you are getting the job done.
No matter you exercise of choice, pick something and get moving! Even if you do not love what you are doing, keep trying different activities and combinations of activities until you find something that you can enjoy that will make you feel good about yourself – and feel even better knowing that you are staving off dementia and helping yourself be the best and brightest that you can be.