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Physical Activity and Cognitive Function

We are all aware of the importance of physical activity in helping us to maintain a healthy weight, reduce your risk of heart disease and improve our mood. In recent years, the impact of physical exercise on cognitive function continues to gather more evidence. Research is showing that exercise can induce structural changes in the brain, which positively affect cognitive abilities such as memory, mood, attention and thinking skills. These benefits to cognitive function have also been found to last for many years and play a role in slowing down cognitive decline as we age.

Exercise and Memory

Memory is one important area of cognition which has been known the deteriorate with age. The hippocampus is the part of our brain that is responsible for controlling memory and other learning functions. Studies have shown that this part of the brain is larger in volume in people who exercise regularly compared to those who don’t. Additionally, exercise was found to reduce the rate of age-related volume loss of the hippocampus by a few years.

Exercise and Mood

Physical activity can have a significant impact on your mood. Exercise has been proven to stimulate the release of certain chemicals in the brain known as endorphins, which are natural mood enhancers. At the same time, exercise suppresses the chemicals which cause stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that people who exercise regularly have reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. As well, it has been found that exercise is almost equivalent to the use of anti-depressants in treating mild depression.

Exercise and Attention

Another benefit of regular exercise is the effects that can be noticed on the attention system, an important part of our executive functions. Exercise stimulates activity in the brain causing the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which plays a role in helping us maintain focus and attention. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition characterized by inattention and impulsive behaviour, where dopamine is in short supply. As such, individuals with ADHD have been known to benefit significantly from exercise as a natural form of therapy to increase dopamine levels and stabilize the brain’s attention functions.

Exercise and Cognitive Decline

Regular physical exercise helps to maintain blood flow brain tissue, which can reduce the risk of damage or deterioration to the brain over time. According to a recent study, older adults with inadequate fitness levels were found to have more deterioration of brain tissue known as white matter, compared to their physically active counterparts. White matter of the brain is made up of millions of nerves functioning to connect all four lobes of our brain together. Deterioration or damage to white matter is often age-related and in the long run has been shown to cause cognitive impairment which can affect decision-making abilities, memory and cognitive skills that allow us to carry out daily activities. With encouraging but inconclusive evidence, researchers are suggesting that regular exercise protects from white matter damage which may slow or delay age-related cognitive decline.

Physical exercise can also affect the levels of one particular protein in the brain known as brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is vital to cognitive function and is responsible for maintaining our existing brain cells together with generating growth of new cells in a process called neurogenesis. In various studies, decreased levels of BDNF have been associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as a potential marker for Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise has been known to stimulate an increase in BDNF which enhances cognitive function while reducing the risk of depression and anxiety.

What Exercise is Good for the Brain?

Various studies have shown that aerobic exercise has a more significant effect on neurogenesis (creation of new cells called neurons in the brain) and overall brain health when compared to strength and resistance training. Aerobic exercise includes everyday exercises like running, swimming, walking, and biking. These exercises are beneficial in particular because they raise your heart rate and increase the amount of blood being pumped to your brain tissue. There is also significant benefit in pursuing exercises that challenges your brain to learn a skill. This can include activities like dance, where you tap into different brain areas by learning new moves, or team sports, where you must incorporate strategy and problem-solving skills into your exercise.

What is the ideal brain workout? Combine approximately 10-30 minutes of aerobic exercise, which will begin to increase BDNF levels and other positive endorphins, followed by a skill-based exercise to challenge yourself and stimulate new networks in the brain.

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