By Christine Yu
While it may be tempting to become one with the couch while you’re spending so much time inside, that isn’t a good idea for either your body or your mind.
Researchers are just beginning to explore how being physically active may counteract the effects aging can have on the brain.
How Exercise Can Help Whip the Brain Into Shape
What scientists have found is that exercise influences the brain’s actual structure as well as how it functions; how well blood circulates within the brain is affected as well.
One of exercise’s most profound effects? It helps make new connections between different regions of the brain and supports the growth of new brain cells, or neurons.
In fact, exercise prods the hippocampus—a part of the brain critical to memory formation—into producing double or triple the number of new neurons produced under sedentary conditions.
In terms of boosting brainpower, “it’s a very profound effect,” says Florida Atlantic University’s Henriette van Praag, PhD.
In studies of people, van Praag says, regular exercise has improved learning and memory.
For example, researchers writing in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that older adults who had better cardiovascular fitness had healthier brains. That was true in people both with and without mild cognitive impairment, a stage between normal brain aging and true dementia.
Research has found how exercise also affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning, attention and decision-making. A 2018 study found that a half-hour of fast running improved one measure of better cognitive function. Other studies have found that interval workouts ramped up connectivity and coordination in areas of the brain responsible for working memory and executive function.
Running Towards Sharper Cognition
Van Praag says that aerobic exercises like walking, running or cycling have been shown to most effectively stimulate cognitive health.
And you don’t have to work out intensely for hours in order to see these benefits.
A recent study found that each additional hour of light activity netted the equivalent of 1.1 years less brain aging. Even a single half-hour exercise session improved brain function, specifically the ability to recall words, concepts and numbers.
In addition, scientists are looking into the possible brain benefits of other forms of physical activity, like resistance training and yoga. A 2019 study found that mind-body exercises like tai chi boost working memory, verbal fluency and other cognitive functions among older adults. In another study, regular yoga practitioners were found to have greater thickness in the left prefrontal cortex, which is definitely a good thing.
The bottom line: Stay on the move to keep your brain in peak condition.