We learn in order to move, and moving increases our capacity to learn. It’s a cycle that helped our species survive until we no longer needed to move as much just to find food. But our learning is still tied to movement. As is our brain health.
Aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of brain-derived-neurotrophic-factor (BDNF) which in turn stimulates the growth of new neurons. Dysregulation of BDNF is linked to a great number of brain-based issues. If this was the only benefit of exercise to the brain, it would be enough reason for doctors to recommend it for brain health.
The great news is exercise does so much more.
The mother’s brain state has measurable effects on the fetus. Chronic stress, anxiety, and depression are all factors in fetal development.
On the positive side, studies have shown that baby rats born to active mothers start life with higher levels of BDNF than their peers. This is in addition to all of the physical benefits babies may receive from exercise during pregnancy.
Even after birth, physical stimulation has been linked to increased learning capacity and even to reversing the effects of birth complications.
Aerobic exercise increases brain norepinephrine which promotes alertness and long term memory regulation. Norepinephrine stimulates the brain and boosts alertness, attention, and learning capacity.
Add a complex environment and motor learning to the mix to see maximum benefits. Aerobic exercise plus learning new movements puts the brain in a primed state for learning just about everything else.
The less “natural” the movement, the better for learning capacity. Walking is great for the brain, but for a student looking to improve their grades, I’d point to dance, or moderate intensity mind-body work. Martial arts would be a great choice. Pushing the brain to learn new motions not only carves new pathways in the brain, it kicks the brain into path-carving mode. Each new pathway is a little bit easier as a result.
Aerobic exercise also gives temporary boosts to focus and memory. Am I suggesting that you throw a tailgate party outside of the testing center with stationary bikes to prep students right before the SAT? Yes, I think I am. That sounds like a great idea.
Elementary schools that reinstated physical education programs in the early-2000s, often in direct opposition to popular education strategies, saw noticeable declines in violent incidents between students.
This isn’t just for developing minds. A 2019 study of nurses in Korea found that those who regularly exercised showed lower levels of overall anger, and better anger control than those who did not.
Exercise boosts attention capacity and executive function, which are impaired in the case of ADHD.
Remember how norepinephrine levels in the brain are increased by aerobic exercise? Drugs prescribed to treat ADHD (Ritalin, Adderall, etc) are intended to increase availability of norepinephrine and dopamine.
Dopamine activity is also increased in the brain during exercise. Greater intensity equals greater dopamine activity. It’s like a dial you can turn up and down as needed.
These core symptoms of ADHD, as well as dysregulation of BDNF, have also been linked to the development of Borderline Personality Disorder. Studies are being proposed this year to test exercise as an additional treatment for BPD.
More Material to Build With
Exercise triggers the production and expression of brain building blocks. It also aids in regulation of chemicals that serve as tools for learning, regulating mood, and handling stress. What we do with those tools is up to us, but exercise helps set the stage.
In the next installment of this series we’ll look a little more closely at how exercise helps us maintain and repair the brain, dipping into topics like stress, anxiety, and depression. Link back to the first installment here where we took an overarching look at brain health and exercise.
Interested in learning more? Check out the rest of the Exercise and the Brain series:
Author Max Steele is an ACE certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition level 1 coach at Hyatt Training. He believes in the transformative power of sustainable nutrition, strength training, & game night. He aims to reignite self-discovery in those who doubt their capabilities and to prove the crucial role of “play” in the pursuit of deep health. Learn more about Max, or get in touch with him by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
Hyatt Training is a team of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.