We’ve all heard the story about how doing exercise releases endorphins which have the effect of making us feel happy and energetic. This is certainly a valid theory, but how about the other ways exercise affects our brain – like giving us better memory, more focus, growing new brain cells and calming us down?
The hippocampus is a lobe of the brain that is involved in the consolidation of memories. Brain imaging techniques have shown that it shrinks in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, a symptom of which is loss of memory. Several studies have been able to show that an exercise intervention can improve the volume of the hippocampus, and also improve memory. An intervention of one year of aerobic exercise training in older adults (just walking!) led to an increase in size of the hippocampus lobe by 2% – when usually in this population the hippocampus shrinks by 1-2% each year. This is the equivalent of adding 1-2 years worth of brain volume to the exercise participants!
DIY: All you need to do is walk! Participants in this study walked for 40 minutes each session – try to go fast enough that you are huffing and puffing a bit.
A recent buzz-word in exercise-related neuroscience, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF, is something to get excited about. It has been referred to as ‘fertiliser for the brain’ and helps to grow new brain cells called neurons. A baby neuron doesn’t really have a job to do when it first sprouts, and it needs some direction to help it grow into a specific type of cell, or it just dies off. BDNF holds the hand of the baby neuron, supporting it to develop into a useful adult cell (what a good parent!). BDNF levels have been shown to increase following exercise – aerobic exercise seems to have the biggest effect.
DIY: Get outside and go for a run, cycle, swim or fast walk!
Focus and performance
There’s a school in the US (Naperville Central High School) where the students start early in the day – by having physical education as their first class. Sounds torturous? The kids seem to love it – and so do their brains. The school has found that reading scores have almost doubled and math scores are increased by 20%, since beginning the early morning exercise routine program.
DIY: Try getting up earlier for a week or two and doing 30 minutes of invigorating exercise before starting work or the rest of your day. See if your focus improves! (tip: make sure you go to bed earlier too or you’ll end up tired!).
Stress and Anxiety
A racing heart, sweaty palms and tight chest are all common symptoms of stress and anxiety. They are also physiological changes that happen when someone is experience a ‘fight or flight’ response – which happens in response to threat, whether the threat is imagined or real. Exercise may help decrease these feelings either by ‘burning up’ excess stress hormones in your body (otherwise known as cortisol), or by activating your parasympathetic response, which helps to lower heart and breathing rate, and decrease anxiety symptoms. A study that looked at medical students (known for their high rates of stress and anxiety!) found that those who completed yoga over a three month period had significantly lower rates of both stress and anxiety, both immediately after the class and during exams that were the day after the class.
DIY: Find a yoga centre in your area and give it a try! (tip: slower styles like yin or restorative yoga are more likely to leave you feeling relaxed whereas harder styles like power yoga may fire you up!).
Louise is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) specialising in mental health. She works as an AEP in the development of a new Youth Early Psychosis Program and in private practice, where she helps people learn how to use movement to manage their mood. Louise also writes a blog about moving for your mind, and runs community workshops in NVC, mindful-movement, and self-compassion for exercise and health behaviours.