What’s good for the body is good for the brain.
We all know that regular exercise is a major player in our ability to achieve a healthy weight, a longer life expectancy and a reduced risk of chronic diseases — from cancers to heart disease to diabetes. And, as you’ve likely discovered, it makes you look good too. But when you hit the gym, your biceps and lats aren’t the only muscles you’re working. It turns out that the brain-body connection is more powerful than anyone thought. Shaking a leg (or curling a bicep) doesn’t just make you stronger, healthier and better-looking—it also helps your brain shrug off damage and slows the effects of aging.
Thanks to brain-imaging studies in humans and neurochemical studies in animals, scientists have found evidence that exercise actually makes a stronger brain. Physical exertion induces the cells in the brain to reinforce old connections between neurons and to forge new connections. This denser neuron network is better able to process and store information, essentially resulting in a smarter brain. Exercise does more than simply preserve brain tissue—it can also improve thinking.
It Helps You Learn New Tricks
Even one exercise session can help you retain physical skills by enhancing what’s commonly known as “muscle memory” or “motor memory,” according to new research published in PlusOne.
As the New York Times reported, men who were taught to follow a complicated pattern on a computer and subsequently exercised were better able to remember the pattern in subsequent days than the men who didn’t exercise.
It Supports Problem-Solving
In one study, mice that exercised by running not only generated new neurons, but those neurons lit up when the mice performed unfamiliar tasks like navigating a new environment. Inactive older adults who began an exercise routine got significantly better at cognitive tests that measured skills such as planning and paying attention.
It Helps Alleviate Symptoms Of Depression
When you exercise, your pituitary gland releases endorphins to help mitigate the physical stress and pain you are experiencing. But those endorphins may play a more important and longer-lasting role: they could help alleviate symptoms of depression, according to a Mayo Clinic report.
It Reduces Stress
Although exercising raises our levels of cortisol — the hormone that causes physical stress and is even associated with long-term memory impairment — its overall effect is one of a stress reducer. That’s because exercise increases the body’s threshold for cortisol, making you more inured to stressors.
It Helps Delay Age-Associated Memory Loss
As we get older, an area of the brain called the hippocampus shrinks. That’s why age is associated with memory loss across the board. However, profound memory loss — such as in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease patients — is also contributed to by accelerated hippocampus shrinking. Luckily, the hippocampus is also an area of the brain that generate new neurons throughout a lifespan. And, the research shows, exercise promotes new neural growth in this area.
Maintaining a healthy brain, is exactly what experts believe you should do to stay sharp, no matter how old you are.
Findings presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress show the brain-boosting effects of just four months of exercise.
Researchers found that not only were the participants’ body measurements all improved — they also did better on the tests of cognitive functioning.
“There are many benefits of exercise — we know it can make us feel better. This suggests it can make us ‘think better’ as well.”