We're all aware of the more common benefits of exercise: weight loss, decreased stress, and improved cardiovascular conditioning. However, new and exciting research is increasingly demonstrating that exercise is good for more than just our brawn; exercise is really good for our brain. Here are 5 little-known benefits of exercise on the brain:
1. Increases GABA: Research shows that certain exercise boosts GABA, a neurotransmitter involved in inhibiting nervous system activity and therefore decreasing anxiety and inducing feelings of calm. A 2010 study found that three sessions of yoga per week boosted participants’ levels of GABA as well as improved mood and decreased anxiety.
2. Improves our Attention: Exercise that involves coordination or following along with more complex routines, such as dance or step aerobics, also improves our capacity to learn by enhancing attention and concentration. All forms of exercise help increase growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the number of new brain cells—but complicated activities provide the biggest brain boost. German researchers found that high school students scored better on high-attention tasks after completing 10-minutes of a complex fitness routine as opposed to 10 minutes of regular activity. People who are physically fit as well as those who are currently involved in aerobic training also have increased control over their ability to focus their attention.
3. Preserves Cognitive Function and Decreases Cognitive Decline: A 2011 study looking at the cognitive function of elderly adults over 2 to 5 years found that the most active participants scored significantly better on tests of cognitive function and also showed the least amount of cognitive decline. Ninety percent of the study’s participants showed no decline in their cognitive abilities throughout the course of the study.
4. May Prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia: Aerobic exercise has been shown to protect the hippocampus, one of the first regions of the brain to succumb to Alzheimer’s-related damage. A 2000 study showed that inactive men who were genetically prone to Alzheimer’s were four times more likely to develop the disease than those who carried the trait but worked out regularly. Furthermore, UCLA researchers have shown a relationship between low physical activity and a higher risk of dementia.
5. Bigger Brains: Your biceps aren’t the only thing that get bigger with exercise. Multiple studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory have greater volume in people who exercises versus people who do not. Bigger brains equate to better cognitive function, memory, and less risk of age-related decline.
So how much exercise is needed to harness these brain benefits? While the verdict is still out, it seems that 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week is sufficient. It seems not to matter whether this exercise is in one or two longer sessions or shorter sessions throughout the week. Only have 20 minutes? That’s ok. Take a brisk walk, get your heart pumping, and feel the brain-boosting benefits!
Dr. Elizabeth Winter practices integrative and functional medicine in San Diego, CA and sees patients from a distance via Skype. For more information about her and her practice philosophy visit About Dr. Winter.