Exercise and your brain

Stereotypes of gym people abound. Usually when someone is asked to describe a star athlete, “big brawny, aggressive, focused” and other such adjectives are used. It is rare for people to think of athletes and physically fit people in terms of intelligent as a primary characteristic. But this is a sad misconception.

The correlation between mental and physical fitness has been recognized for decades. At least 50 years ago, tests demonstrated that physically fit adults performed better than their less-fit peers. However, it has been more recently, that the questions of cause and effect have been addressed.

Are smarter people those who work out or does working out cause you to become smarter? What exactly is going on to show these consistent results that relate physical and mental strengths?

Much information has been collected from lab experiments using the favored research animal — the lab rat. The enrichment of a lab rat’s environment by introducing climbing devices and mazes produces more synapses (connections) in the brain, more blood flow to the brain and the creation of more brain cells.

Until recently, most neurobiologists believed that adult brain cells do not divide and create more brain cells. However, a recent fluorescent labeling technique confirms that cells in the adult brain do in fact divide, making new neurons, and that this occurs in various parts of the brain, especially the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. These structures are very important for processing new information and creating memories.

Neurobiologists from the University of Illinois discovered that when rats were prompted to engage in aerobic activity, the density of the blood vessels in the cerebellum increased. Running and other aerobic activity is also effective in increasing the creation of new neurons. Resistance exercise is not particularly effective in this regard.

Experts believe that aerobic exercise leads to increased brain cell division through a release of growth factors. Physical activity increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor which is a protein that promotes new cell creation as well as protects against stress-induced cell death in the brain.

Exercise also releases erythropoietin which is a protein secreted by the kidneys, and vascular endothelial growth factor both of which promote brain blood vessel growth. Another growth factor from the glial cells has implications in the fight against Parkinson’s disease.

A well-known benefit of exercise is that it reduces stress. This is an interesting point because exercise increases physical stress. However, exercise-induced stress seems to have an overall effect of lowering other types of emotional or psychological stress and provides protection against the negative effects of cortisol (the stress hormone) on the brain.

Even more than mental exercises, such as crossword puzzles and other brain teasers, actual physical exercise both protects the brain from degenerative processes as well as helps repair and rebuild vital brain cells.

Research recently published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review notes that school-aged children who regularly engage in aerobic exercise have expanded working memory, which means they have greater capacity to mentally manipulate facts and ideas.

They have improved attention spans and therefore the ability to inhibit disruptive impulses at school, leading to better academic performance. Young adults who exercise aerobically on a regular basis are shown to have better reaction times, give more accurate responses to questions and are better able to detect errors in timed tests.

Older adults who exercise aerobically regularly demonstrate improved executive function, meaning that they have more focused attention, are able to switch effectively between tasks and are able to hold multiple items in their working memory.

Exercise does a body and a brain good.

If you need help getting started on an exercise program, call me.


Jane Riley is a certified personal trainer, adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at janerileyfitness@gmail.com or (808) 212-8119 and www.janerileyfitness.com


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