Exercise benefits the brain in many measurable ways. A popular book among our team of personal trainers is “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”
Written by John J Ratey, MD and Eric Hagerman, “Spark” argues that exercise helps produce “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Most of the evidence supporting this argument was drawn from the previous decade of studies on learning capacity, cognitive decline, and brain health. The book is now seven years old, making some of that evidence almost old enough to vote.
It’s not very “radical” or “new” anymore, but it’s still crucial. The intervening years haven’t done much to blunt the message. In fact, the opposite is true. From pre-schools to assisted living centers, programs using this evidence have seen amazing success in areas of brain health and growth.
You won’t find medical advice here, or an argument to replace drugs with running. But for most brain related issues, exercise is now recognized as an additional method of treatment.
There are so many variables we can’t control affecting brain development and health. Environmental, trauma-related, and genetic factors to name a few. Exercise gives us a clear option to feed the brain more tools to grow, adapt, maintain, and rebuild itself. Here’s a variable we can control, and the evidence points to exercise’s ability to mitigate some of those others.
Exercise and physical skill building should be components of any program concerned with cognitive development, education, mental health, or rehabilitation.
Just a few brain-related concerns that exercise may help with:
- Recovery from Birth Issues
- Postpartum Depression
- Learning Capacity
- Stress Response and Anger Management
- ADHD (and attention capacity in general)
- Alzheimer’s (and memory in general)
- Hormonal Changes (throughout life)
- Brain longevity
There are no magic pills that solve every problem. But name something else that can boost your SAT score at 17, help manage chronic depression in your 30’s, lower your risk for Alzheimer’s in your 70’s, and help you with the Sunday crossword puzzle.
This is the part where, like a drug commercial, we suggest you “talk to your doctor about exercise today.”
What’s the Exercise-Brain Connection?
From our earliest moments, we learn though movement. The brain is adapting in order to move faster, more efficiently, safer, and stronger. It grows to keep pace with our movements. You run to get faster, and not just because your legs are stronger. It’s because your brain is actually better at running. It changed. You reprogrammed your brain for running.
Think about the impact of that statement. You intentionally changed your brain to serve you better. Your brain is programmable. And reprogrammable. You can grow its capacity, on purpose. Simply through exercise.
If movement grows brains, it also heals them. It makes them more resilient, more elastic. Neuroplasticity is how able-to-flex-or-change your brain is. It’s also what makes learning possible and determines how easy that learning is.
Our brains heal. They bend, and reshape. Intentional exercise aids with these processes. Movement carves new pathways, and triggers the regrowth of damaged areas. And moderate to intense intentional movement seems to do this to the greater degree than the standard activities of daily living.
What Type of Exercise?
There isn’t one simple answer to this question. We know you need a variety to see the best results. The following list may look familiar if you know about building strength. This is why some folks refer to the brain as a muscle. What’s good for one is often good for the other.
For maximal brain impact you need:
1. Moderate to intense exercise multiple times per week. Low intensity work is great, but you need to get that heart rate up and push yourself.
2. Exercise with a learning component. This could be learning new movements in your strength training or taking up a movement-based hobby like dance. Movement learning helps keep the brain elastic and makes other types of learning easier.
3. Aerobic as well as anaerobic. This is where running, biking, swimming, etc. come into play.
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, we’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. Are we suggesting that you throw a tailgate party outside of the testing center with stationary bikes to prep students right before the SAT? Yes, 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.
Recovery and Maintenance
So exercise grows the brain and helps regulate it. Plus the younger we start the earlier the benefits are. But what if you’re (as a random example having nothing to do with the author) in your mid-thirties and struggling with stress, self-worth, and focus. You haven’t exercised in years. Maybe you never really did.
Are you stuck with the brain you’ve got, unaided by all that great stretching, growing, exercise we mentioned last time? No. And not only no, but an emphatic “absolutely not!”
Studies as recent as this year have shown that you still benefit from what Dr John J Ratey (Remember him? Wrote that great book, Spark?) describes as “Miracle-Gro for the brain,” as you age. In fact, the benefits may increase the older you get.
Hang on to that idea that it’s “never too late to grow the brain.” We’re going to revisit it in the final chapter.
So you aren’t a kid any more. You’ve got some life behind you and your brain has some wear and tear to prove it. You’ve got some neural pathways that aren’t the most productive, or your brain isn’t the best at regulating BDNF, dopamine, or some other hormone or neurotransmitter.
Well if the brain needs exercise to grow, it certainly needs it to re-grow.
“That which doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger” could be restated as “stress which doesn’t overwhelm my body’s ability to recover, makes me stronger.” Exercise is stress, applied intentionally to strengthen the body.
Exercise also increases your stress threshold, while improving your ability to recover from stress damage.
The stress response is often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. Those two words refer to movement for a reason. Your amygdala, hypothalamus, and HPA axis are firing up systems useful for survival (movement) and shutting down systems that aren’t.
Your body is preparing to move, so if you can, let it. Complete the cycle and put those chemicals to use. You‘ll not only “burn off” the waste buildup from your stress response, you’ll increase your brain’s stress capacity for next time.
Chronic stress can shrink parts of your brain and scramble your ability to turn the response on and off again. Through the application of exercise – intentional stress – we can raise our threshold and help our brain recalibrate its response.
Depression & Anxiety
Depression damages the brain. Just like stress, chronic depression shrinks areas of the brain. Once again, exercise is here to help the brain recover and heal. What grows, re-grows.
Exercise helps regulate neurotransmitters. We covered that last time. Just like with ADHD, most major depression medications target neurotransmitters that are affected by exercise. For depression these are serotonin plus our old friends norepinephrine and dopamine. It’s no surprise that many doctors are using exercise prescription in tandem with medication to treat depression.
There’s also this great little peptide called ANP. You can make it in the brain, but your heart also secrets it during intense exercise. ANP is a very chill peptide, and once it migrates up to the hypothalamus it helps regulate your HPA axis. You may recall that’s part of your stress response system. ANP is linked to reductions in anxiety symptoms, panic attacks, and helping reverse the negative effects of chronic stress.
Another big effect of exercise on anxiety is in the area of anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety sensitivity is the onset of anxiety when there is no trigger, only the symptoms. Your heart races or your breath quickens and the brain knows these things are signs of an anxiety episode. So it goes ahead and flips all the switches. Your brain is just trying to be helpful.
Intense exercise gives your brain a chance to experience increased heart rate or quickness of breath as normal signs of exertion, divorced from anxiety and fear. Over time, stress stops being solely associated with anxiety and the sensitivity often decreases.
Addiction shares a neurotransmitter issue with ADHD and depression. Dopamine. In fact, both ADHD and depression often contribute to substance abuse or other addictive behavior.
So exercise not only helps with dopamine regulation, but also with creating new sense memories, healing damage to the brain, and helping with underlying issues like depression or ADHD.
Remember ANP, that chill little peptide commuting from the heart to the HPA axis? A 2013 study specifically linked it to reduction of stress, anxiety, and craving symptoms for patients going through withdrawal.
As we said earlier: what grows, re-grows. Stress is good for your body and mind, if you can recover from it. Exercise helps increase your stress threshold, create new neural pathways, and physically cope with the stresses of life.
Your brain needs to build its way out of a problem, and exercise gives it the tools to do that. It never stops growing, unless you stop moving.
Everything we’ve discussed up to this point is still on the table. Most of it even more so. Learning, growing, and healing aren’t abilities you’ll stop needing in your life. An elastic brain is a brain that can go the distance. It adapts to new challenges, heals minor damage, and resists major damage.
Author Nassim Nicholas Talib coined the term “Anti-fragile” to describe “things that gain from disorder.” He wrote a book about it. This term doesn’t describe an immovable body, frozen and immune to stress. It describes a system that thrives under stress, as all good systems do. A body (and brain) that take the inevitable wear and tear as catalyst for growth and improvement.
We’re not just talking about keeping the wolf from the door. We’re talking about growth. New skills, capacity, and swiftness. More neuroplasticity, at whatever age you are. Next year too.
Growth At Any Age
A 2018 Journal of Sports Medicine study indicated that exercise improves cognitive function in adults over 50, regardless of their current status. Patients across the spectrum of age, with or without noticeable cognitive decline, improved function. The study used both aerobic and resistance training, reinforcing the idea that a balanced fitness plan is the most impactful.
BDNF and Dopamine regulation don’t get less important with age. Lack of drive or motivation is a common complaint in older populations and BDNF availability drops off with age. This makes these neurotransmitters even more valuable resources.
Almost all of the building blocks and tools your brain uses become more valuable with age. That value is driven by scarcity. But unlike other assets in your life, investing early will only get you so far. You’ll have a good baseline of fitness if you start young, but there’s no retirement from exercise.
If it helps, think of exercise as having a “salary” that increases every year, sometimes drastically, for life. Hard to pass up that deal.
Isn’t Decline Inevitable?
The effects of aging are a reality we all have to deal with, and just like the rest of the body, the brain is impacted. But the degree of inevitability, and the level of decline that we consider “normal” isn’t supported by the scientific literature.
Our thinking skills decline with age. At least, that’s a pattern modern humans tend to follow. Just as with age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, the brain tightens and shrinks. It loses that precious plasticity and shrinks. Old neural pathways become harder, locking in habits and thinking patterns.
Keep in mind that exercise helps manage stress, anxiety, and depression which all increase the risk of dementia. Even people who possess the APOE4 gene variant which increases susceptibility to Alzheimer’s should see a reduced risk from exercise. A JAMA study from 2017 indicated that other strong genetic risk factors to any type of dementia could be similarly reduced.
The hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that takes care of memory, shrinks with age. A reduced hippocampus increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Guess what greatly reduces that shrinking? Aerobic exercise. Thirty minutes, four or five times a week seems to do the trick.
Consider a baby. They need to push their brain to grow rapidly, acquiring a staggering amount of skills. Carving brand new pathways and growing neurons for memory, speech, motor skills, and more. They do this with movement. They flail around, grabbing at things, and making noise. As a result, they learn. Their brain grows and neural paths connect.
You have the same human brain they do, plus the benefit of experience. Dust off the cobwebs, warm that brain up, and stretch it back out. Exercise is your foam roller.
Your capacity to grow and heal your own brain is far greater than you might think.
We’ve laid out our, admittedly abridged, argument for intentional exercise as a key component of brain health. Here’s your optional homework reading list:
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J Ratey, MD with Eric Hagerman
- The Athlete’s Way: Training Your Mind and Body to Experience the Joy of Exercise by Christopher Bergland
- The End of Stress as We Know It by Bruce McEwan with Elizabeth N. Lasley
The evidence linking exercise with brain health is staggering at this point, and there are new studies every year expanding what we know about how exercise affects neurotransmitters and neuron growth.
There’s one last thought we want to leave you with. It’s really the same argument we’ve been making, but from a different angle. Remember that many brain related difficulties are not considered a “normal, inevitable part of life” by researchers. Especially in areas of cognitive decline.
Does exercise actually “boost” the brain’s functionality? Or is the lack of exercise part of what’s dragging us down?
We don’t think of food as a “cheat code” for life. It’s understood that we must eat to live and thrive. Isn’t that the sort of slot exercise should occupy? Not a bonus. Not a supplement. A basic requirement for your brain to function.
If you skipped right to the bottom, here’s what we want you to know:
The benefits of intentional exercise on brain growth, health, and longevity start before birth and extend throughout our life. Skill development, mood stabilization, learning capacity, and recovery from damage are all boosted by exercise.
Your brain needs exercise. It relies on the chemicals released by movement and the stress exercise provides in order to stay elastic. An elastic brain is a stronger, better regulated brain.
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. Get in touch by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.