Exercise and Brain Health
We all know that physical exercise increases our physical fitness, but it also helps keep our brain healthy too. How does this work? First, it is necessary to define physical exercise so as not to confuse it with physical activity. Physical activity may be defined as any bodily movement, using skeletal muscles and requiring energy. Physical exercise is a category of physical activity that is planned, structured, repeated, and with a goal, for example, to improve fitness (1). Physical exercise may be aerobic (with oxygen) type activities such as running, cycling, swimming, spin classes, and kickboxing. These activities typical last for 30 or more minutes of continuous activity. Another type of physical exercise is anaerobic (without oxygen) such as resistance training (e.g., power or strength training and bodybuilding). An anaerobic training session may last as long as an aerobic one, but exercises are performed in sets (e.g., lifting weights 8-15 times) and are followed by a rest period before the next set commences. These types of activities help keep our brain healthy.
For the brain to maintain normal cognitive function, it requires a continuous oxygen supply and other nutrients. To achieve this, it is necessary to have an abundance of healthy blood vessels. The circulation of nutrient-rich blood throughout the body helps keep our blood vessels healthy. What if we could assist this process and stay physically and mental healthy for longer? Well, we can by engaging in exercise. By exercising, we make more of the cellular structures known as mitochondria which are responsible for generating energy in our muscles and brain. In addition, increasing your heart rate enhances the ability for adults to grow new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis (2).
Physical exercise modulates genes that initiates structural and functional changes in the brain. This is beneficial for cognitive functioning and overall well-being. In addition, physical exercise provides protection against neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (3). Research has revealed that physical exercise increases gray matter in frontal (important for problem solving, impulse control, language, memory, and judgement) and hippocampal (important for memory, especially long-term memory) regions of the brain (4); blood flow (5); academic achievement (6, 7, 8, 9); cognitive abilities such as memory, learning and attention (10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17); and help prevent cognitive decline and the risk of dementia (18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23).
Exercise and Mental Health
Various studies have found that physical exercise improves mood and reduces depression and anxiety symptoms (24, 25). One study reported that individuals in an aerobic exercise group experienced lower depression relapse rates compared to those in a medication group (26). Health-related Quality of Life questionnaire scores appear to improve as a result of physical exercise due to the enhancement of well-being and physical functioning in individuals with poor health (27, 28).
Resistance training has been associated with improved mood and reduced confusion, anger and tension in healthy older adults. Some elderly individuals may feel isolated in their retirement years. Therefore, joining a gym, hiking group or other physically active group may also serve as a form of social support. (29).
Exercise and Physical Health
Physical exercise has many benefits when it comes to our physical health. For example, engaging in regular and moderate physical exercise lowers our risk of coronary heart disease (30, 31). Taking part in physical activity has been shown to benefit individuals with Type II diabetes by lowering systolic blood pressure and decreasing the risk of diabetes-related complications and myocardial infarction (32).
Physical exercise can help us maintain a healthy body weight. The benefits of not being overweight include avoiding obesity, which in turn helps minimize the risk of developing Type II diabetes (33) and cardiovascular disease, but also help us move around easier so that we maintain mobility as we age.
Finally, physical exercise doesn’t have the nasty side-effects associated with many medications. However, it is important to get clearance from a medical professional before commencing any type (or increasing the intensity) of any physical exercise, to ensure it is safe for you to do so.
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