Physical activity and the Brain

For decades we have known that exercise has been effective in protecting our heart health and maintaining a strong musculoskeletal system. However, it is only relatively recently that we have come to learn the huge positive that exercise can have the function, form and anatomy of the Brain.

The Brain is responsible for most of the vital functions in our body and also our higher thinking, which makes us who we are and gives us the ability to do what we please. Therefore, preservation of this organ is important in order to preserve our personalities, independence and our human capabilities.

Exercise has now been shown to have a plethora of acute and chronic benefits for brain health, and in some cases these can be accrued through general activity (e.g. climbing stairs, gardening and walking). See below for some of the key ways physical activity and formal exercise can positively impact your brain health and mental wellbeing:

Acute effects

  • A single bout of aerobic exercise can improve both visual and motor learning for at least 30 minutes, aiding knowledge development and skill acquisition.
  • Exercise can produce a transient improvement in reaction time leading to better focus and attention span.
  • 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at 70% heart rate maximum has been shown to improve reasoning and planning capability which would have a beneficial effect on strategic thinking and logistical analysis.
  • There is some evidence emerging to suggest endurance exercise can acutely alter pain modulation (i.e. pain sensation or threshold), meaning those who exercise feel lower relative pain responses.
  • There is lots of evidence ot support an acute bout of physical exercise improving mood for increased release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.

Chronic effects

  • Exercise can reduce the risk of dementia as well as attenuating symptoms for those suffering from it. Exercise has a well established link to improving long term memory.
  • Habitual exercise can have a positive effect on feelings of anxiety, depression and stress.
  • Research is starting to emerge indicating that exercise could be effective in improving and maintain self control, which could be pivotal in battling addiction, preventing obesity and maintain mental wellbeing.

Key points to note

  • Exercise of both low and high intensity has been shown to have both acute and chronic effect on executive function and mood.
  • Exercise chronicly works to preserve brain function and prevent brain disease.
  • In order to keep positive effects of exercise it needs to be performed habitually and it is likely that improvement in cardiovascular fitness need to be maintained.
  • Exercise can have beneficial effects to brain health over and above cognitive training.