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The scientific benefits of regular exercise for mental agility

Whether indoors or outdoors, frequent physical activity can improve the efficiency and precision of your brain.

The scientific benefits of regular exercise for mental agility
[Photo: Hans Reniers/Unsplash]

Exercise is a powerful tool with a special impact on how our brains work.

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It energizes our bodies, causing us to take deeper breaths and oxygenate our cells, but it also improves neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change itself, well into adulthood. It can help us adapt and deal with unexpected changes easier.

It also improves brain agility. Those who exercise achieve better brain function, such as emotional regulation and flexible thinking processes, and can more easily switch between tasks. Exercise also combats brain decline with age—research shows exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia by 30 percent.

During this uncertain time period, problem-solving skills are needed more than ever and regular exercise can contribute to this.

Intense exercise improves brain function

High-intensity exercise is particularly effective on brain function.

In a study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, researchers from the University of Texas looked at the impact of high-intensity exercise on a protein called BDNF, short for “Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor” which causes growth of nerve cells.

BDNF is involved in brain cell survival and repair, mood regulation, and cognitive functions like learning and memory. Low BDNF levels are associated with a host of mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. In the Texas study, all adults who performed a session of high-intensity exercise experienced higher BDNF levels and improvements in cognitive function.

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Fortunately, when we engage in enjoyable exercise, our brains release more BDNF than when the exercise feels like a chore. Intention appears to be important in brain activity. Moreover, this wanting to do something is associated with an optimistic attitude, heightening the benefits of exercise.

Maintaining long-term brain health

With a limited set of exercises deemed safe with social distancing measures, walks are a popular form of physical fitness. Walking and other forms of aerobic exercise create changes in the hippocampus, which relates to learning, memory, and control of emotions.

A brisk walk essentially “future-proofs” the brain. A possible growth of new cells caused by BDNF and an increase in oxygen-supplying blood vessels expands the hippocampal area of the brain, during times of intense exercise. The process safeguards against the natural atrophy of brain cells over time, therefore contributing to the upkeep of the brain.

Different exercises, different benefits

While sheltering indoors, activities that relate to healthy brain development are important nourishment.

Taking up table tennis, which combines hand-eye coordination and socialization, has been shown to increase the thickness of the brain in the parts of the cortex related to social and emotional welfare. This is particularly important at a time when loneliness and social connection are weighing on many people.

Similarly, exercise which includes a variety of coordinated movements and builds muscle , such as dance, is especially beneficial to the brain.

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Finally, my personal favorite for the mind and body is boxing. It involves cardio, muscle toning, and excellent stress relief. In my personal experimentation with exercise, it provides the best form of mindfulness.

For those who struggle with maintaining habits around regular exercise, there is good news. Individuals who do not engage in regular exercise can experience higher levels of neurogenesis, or growth of new brain cells, once they start aerobic exercise, compared to those frequently engage in exercise.

The sooner you start moving, the sooner you will build up your smarts.


Tara Swart is a neuroscientist, executive adviser, author, and medical doctor. She is the author of The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.

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