The benefits of exercise for brain health have long been accepted, but new research just added a big item to the long list of bonuses for the brain from physical fitness!
We know that the benefits of physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, have effects on brain functions. A study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Studies has shown that even 20 minutes of exercise will improve information processing and memory functions. Exercise increases heart rate and pumps more oxygen to the brain. It aids the release of a number of hormones which aid in and provide a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise also stimulates the brain by boosting the growth of new connections between cells in cortical areas. Researchers also found that the antidepressant-like effects associated with "runner's high" is caused by a drop in stress hormones which is associated with added cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. This increase in brain activity increases the brain’s need for food.
Scientists used to believe that the brain absorbed glucose from the blood, but about 10 years ago, they found specialized cells in the brain, known as astrocytes, that act as support cells for neurons and contain stores of glycogen, or carbohydrates. Glycogen turned out to be critical for the health of cells throughout the brain. However, there was no way to measure the levels of the glycogen, in order to understand how it works to support brain health.
This spurred researchers to develop a method that could measure how much brain glycogen uses. Scientists at the Laboratory of Biochemistry and Neuroscience at the University of Tsukuba gathered two groups of adult male rats. One group was put on a daily treadmill running program, while the other group was sedentary for the same period of time each day. They discovered that prolonged exercise significantly lowered the brain’s stores of energy, particularly in the areas of the brain that are involved in thinking, memory, and movement. After a single session on the treadmill, the animals were allowed to rest and feed, then their brain glycogen levels were studied. The scientists found that the levels of glycogen had not only been restored to what they had been before the workout, but had increased by as much as a 60 percent in the frontal cortex and hippocampus. The astrocytes had overcompensated, resulting in a kind of brain carbo-loading. The levels returned to normal within about 24 hours.
However, when the animals continued the exercise program for four weeks, heightened levels became the new normal, with levels of glycogen showing substantial increases compared to the sedentary animals. These increases were especially notable in the parts of the brain critical to learning and memory formation — the cortex and the hippocampus. In other words, this energy balance affects how well the brain functions during exercise, and
how well our thinking and memory work the rest of the time!
This is more proof of the overall importance of exercise for good health!
- Aerobic exercise is great for body and brain.
- Exercise in the morning before going to work. It prepares you for mental stresses of the day, and improves your reaction to complex situations.
- The best brain health workouts involve routines that integrate different parts of the brain such as coordination, rhythm, and strategy. Try a new activity that incorporates coordination along with cardiovascular exercise, such as a dance or zumba.
Keep these tips in mind when designing your fitness regimen. They give 'work smarter' a new meaning!