You have definitely heard from somewhere that “your brain is a muscle.” You need to keep your brain engaged and exercised to make sure that it is at top efficiency. But how does physical exercise affect brain function?
From a very basic view, it seems that exercise increases blood flow around the body, including the brain. More blood means more brain function, right? Yes. A basic effect of exercise on the brain is increased blood flow, which is required for more intensive brain tasks like solving complex math equations or more advanced spatial thinking. The cerebral circulation around the brain is mostly autoregulated, and blood tends to go to areas that the brain needs it. The below diagram shows how blood flow to the brain changes when going from idle activities to exercise.
Areas in red represent the maximum amount of blood flow to that area of the brain, with blue representing the least amount of blood flow.
Increased blood flow is not the only benefit from increased exercise. Hormones associated with “runner’s high,” a sensation of euphoria and ease that sometimes come with running activities, decrease stress hormones in the brain. Also, research from UCLA revealed that there is a strong correlation between exercise and new growth factors in the brain. Growth factors are naturally occurring substances that stimulate cellular growth and healing, and in this case, the growth factors caused by exercise are able to make the growth of new neuronal connections easier.
Moving from a physiological to a psychological perspective, exercise is also able to help memory and thinking skills, along with positive changes in mood and behavior. According to a study done by Harvard Health, regular exercise can increase the size of certain portions of the brain. The study focused on the hippocampus, an area that regulates learning and memory.
Indirectly, exercise can also improve sleep, and reduce stress and anxiety.
It seems that exercise has more than a positive effect on the brain. All of the studies seem to be done on light aerobic exercise, which are the ones that get you sweating and moving. Resistance training and muscle toning exercises are also correlated with the same positive effects but are not as effective as aerobic exercise. It is also safe to assume that more intensive aerobic exercise would have the same effects.
Kirk I. Erickson, Michelle W. Voss, Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, Chandramallika Basak, Amanda Szabo, Laura Chaddock, Jennifer S. Kim, Susie Heo, Heloisa Alves, Siobhan M. White, Thomas R. Wojcicki, Emily Mailey, Victoria J. Vieira, Stephen A. Martin, Brandt D. Pence, Jeffrey A. Woods, Edward McAuley, and Arthur F. Kramer – Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory
Q.Dinga, S.Vaynman, M.Akhavan, Z.Ying, F.Gomez-Pinilla – Insulin-like growth factor I interfaces with brain-derived neurotrophic factor-mediated synaptic plasticity to modulate aspects of exercise-induced cognitive function