Your Brain on Exercise

We have a surplus of scientifically validated data supporting exercise as a means of improving the immune system, cardiorespiratory condition, muscular-skeletal functioning, mental health, and length and quality of life. Now we can add to this impressive list of life altering effects—brain health. Research suggests that people who are involved in regular physical activity may enjoy a reduced risk of cognitive decline, while those who are inactive are twice as likely to experience a decline that can include dementia (characterized by a progressive loss of intellectual function). Additional research demonstrates that there is a correlation between the level of cardiovascular fitness and brain size. Regular aerobic exercise may improve blood flow to the brain; conversely, poor blood flow to the brain may result in more stiffness in brain blood vessels, and is associated with mild cognitive impairment and dementia.

In a group of men and women between the ages of 55 and 80 suffering from mild cognitive impairment, study results demonstrated that after participating in moderate aerobic activity several times a week over a period of a year, there was a reduction in artery stiffness in the neck and an overall increased blood flow to the brain. The more gains the participants made in oxygen consumption (a measure of aerobic capacity) the greater the reduction in artery stiffness and improvements to brain blood flow.   

Continuous aerobic activity such as walking at a moderate pace, is associated with improvements in cognitive processes and memory, and is correlated with a delay in brain aging. Movement that adds a new pattern such as that of line dancing, gentle yoga, or Tai Chi, further contributes to the improvement in cognitive processes.

The movement-brain relationship is productive at any age, with children benefiting tremendously as their brain is still developing. In children, exercise has resulted in improvements in cognitive function, attention, problem solving skills, creativity, and even mental health. What is very clear is the symbiotic relationship between the brain and the body—regular, continuous aerobic activity impacts the structure and the functioning of the brain, even improving mood and mental health. In turn, the exercise adherence literature demonstrates that a positive outlook and appreciation for the effects of movement, result in more and regular fitness-related activity. It appears as though the body helps the brain, and the brain helps the body—quite miraculous equipment!