Exercise Is 'Miracle-Gro' for the Brain

Physical activity works extraordinary wonders for the human body. It impacts virtually every corner of our being, from boosting cardiovascular function to ameliorating urinary incontinence. Many of these effects lie within the brain, making exercise a powerful tool for preventing cortical atrophy and maintaining mental acuity.

The more you move the 'smarter' you are.

Just imagine if ‘miracle-gro’ for the brain could be obtained through a medication. People would be piling over each other at drug stores to get their hands on it. The ironic thing is, it’s easier than that. It sounds absurd, but there’s legitimate evidence to correlate physical activity with brain growth.

“We already use medications and chemicals to change the way our brain works. What if we can make permanent, significant changes to our brain structure and function through simple activities that we often do in a normal day?” — Courtney E. Ackerman, MSc.

Neuroplasticity 101

What is the physiology behind this ‘miracle-gro’ anyway? Neuroplasticity is typically described as the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways while changing how its circuits are wired. It is the compensatory mechanism in response to the turmoil of life, readjusting the brain through every season, injury, or disease.

These changes can be structural, such as differences in size, shape, and density to brain matter, or they can be organizational, forming new connections or strengthening existing ones. Neuroplasticity goes far beyond improving cognitive function as well. It has been proven to reduce anxiety, depression, and even PTSD.

In reality, this is a young field of research. There are many things we don’t know about this phenomenon. One thing is for certain, exercise and neuroplasticity go hand in hand.

Convergent evidence from both human and animal studies suggests that physical activity facilitates neuroplasticity of certain brain structures, leading to enhanced cognitive function.

It doesn’t stop there either.

“Animal studies have identified an enhancement of neurogenesis, synaptogenesis, angiogenesis and the release of neurotrophins as neural mechanisms mediating beneficial cognitive effects of physical exercise.” — Hötting & Röder

In layman’s terms, exercise can enhance and protect your brain and its neurons, along with blood vessels and developmental proteins. This plethora of effects can significantly improve cognitive function and combat aging.

The kicker is, you must put in the work to reap the benefits.

New data suggest that to maintain the neuro-cognitive benefits induced by physical exercise, an increase in the cardiovascular fitness level must be maintained.

It’s time to dive into why exercise is the best brain medicine you could ever take, and what you need to do to ensure you get a sufficient dose every day.

Exercise and Neuroplasticity

“Exercise is known to have numerous neuro-protective and cognitive benefits, especially pertaining to memory and learning related processes. One potential link connecting them is exercise-mediated hippocampal neurogenesis, in which new neurons are generated and incorporated into hippocampal circuits.” — Liu & Nusslock

The hippocampus is a brain center responsible for consolidating short-term information into long-term memories, along with spatial memory function. Aerobic exercise can boost BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which plays a key role in improved cognitive function and the growth of nerves within the hippocampus.

In one study, it was found that BNDF restored synaptic plasticity, enhanced neurogenesis, and improved learning in subjects that underwent a period of aerobic exercise.

It should be noted that neurogenesis is different from neuroplasticity (exercise achieves both). Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired; neurogenesis is the even more amazing ability of the brain to grow new neurons. Again, this concept of ‘miracle-gro’ rings true.

Accumulating evidence has surfaced around exercise and aging in this field. Physical activity can not only improve learning and memory, but also attenuate neuro-degeneration, including Alzheimer’s disease. This is a crucial finding as the disorder strikes 44 million people worldwide. What if exercise was the first ‘pill’ prescribed to elderly populations? How different would our world look then?

“We do not stop exercising because we grow old — we grow old because we stop exercising.” — Dr. Kenneth Cooper

Say what you want about this quote, it’s right on point. As much as exercise attenuates chronic disease, it fulfills an even deeper purpose for elderly folks. Physical activity is a vessel for staying mentally alert, and socially engaged — two keys for continued learning and growth in the later years.

What Intensity Is Best?

What’s the ideal exercise intensity for neuroplasticity?

We don’t know…yet.

Although many studies analyze BDNF expression from moderate exercise, much less is known about how different levels of exercise intensity directly affect BDNF levels and subsequent neurogenesis.

What is certain, however, is that consistency is key. Aim for at least 150min of moderate-vigorous aerobic activity per week, and spread it out over several days. As I’ve said in the past, “this is not an overnight fix, but rather a lifelong commitment to maintaining a well-oiled machine”.

A Brief Note on Research

A challenge with this type of research is that much of it is done on rodents. Due to ethical reasons, it is difficult to conclusively test this on humans since brain samples cannot be readily collected from participants following various exercise programs. For this reason, indirect measures are often used in the form of cognitive tests.

Research’s shortcomings aside, aerobic exercise not only serves as a robust method for improving physical health, but also acts as a preventative and protective measure against numerous neurological diseases.

In Closing,

Let this article be one more reason to move your body. We’ve known for decades that exercise is a powerful prevention tool against chronic disease. Now with the concrete evidence of it’s ‘miracle-gro’ effect on the brain, it should be prioritized more than ever.

There’s something very profound about exercise’s role in the brain. The very nature of neuroplasticity is resilience — adapting, changing, overcoming.

Isn’t that what we strive to be as human beings?

Through moving our bodies, we can readily choose to be a better version of ourselves, day after day.