It is well established by now that exercise helps in maintaining and growing muscle mass, improves fitness capacities, as well as helps in the prevention of lifestyle diseases brought about by a sedentary lifestyle. When we exercise, physiological changes occur in the body that are a result of an adaptation garnered from performing exercises. This is not only limited to our muscles and bones though, scientists have also studied the effects of exercise on our brains and cognitive processes in children up to elderly adults.
Exercise positively affects our brains in direct and indirect manners. Exercise stimulates changes in the body by reducing insulin resistance and inflammation, and encourages the secretion of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), a key molecule closely linked to learning and memory. BDNF also helps in the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, as well as promotes the abundance and survival of new brain cells. In research literature, scientists have found that the regions of the brain responsible for thinking and memory are larger in volume and mass in people who exercise compared to those who do not. An exercise program of moderate intensity performed for six months to a year has already been associated with an increase of brain volume in these selected regions. Since exercise has also been shown to promote better sleep, mood and promote less levels of stress and anxiety, indirect improvements on brain function are observed as a result of these.
Perhaps, one of the most inspiring findings when it comes to exercise and cognitive function is that all age groups seem to have a positive benefit. In children, those who exercise consistently have better grades and academic performances than those who do not. In elderly adults, a study found that the practice of tai chi improved executive function in elderly adults especially in planning, working memory, problem solving and verbal reasoning.
If you’re already exercising, please keep it up! If not, it helps to perform your exercise with the goal of making it a habit, especially since the benefits in memory and learning are observed after six months of exercise. The World Health Organization has recommended at least 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity coupled with strength training of major muscle groups two days in a week. Keep exercising safely!