How Physical Activity Impacts Brain Function

Brain Function

Brain Function

We have all heard the recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, based off of the U.S. department of Health and Human Services. Some of us may reach that two and a half hours worth throughout the week, while some of us struggle to get that time in. No matter where you fall on that scale, the benefits of physical activity on the body are well documented, from its metabolism boosting benefits, to the ability to help you sleep better at night. What you may not be as aware of, are the benefits that physical activity can have on your brain function.

One of the topics that has been heavily researched is the positive effects that light to moderate physical activity performed regularly for people who are at higher risk for developing dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease. Several studies have evidenced the improvement in size of white matter in the brain when exercise is consistently performed by patients who are at risk for developing dementia, and has been shown to decrease the amount of white matter loss in people who have already been diagnosed with dementia. Having greater size and connectivity of white matter in the brain helps the grey matter in the brain transmit signals and improve cognitive ability. There is also evidence of increased activity in the hippocampus with regular exercise, this is the part of the brain that is related to long term memory. This is good news for everyone, as performing physical activity regularly can improve your memory and retention abilities.

At this point you may be wondering “how exactly does working out my muscles improve my brain?”... and there are several ways that physical activity is directly related to brain function.

The first is: physical activity, especially aerobic activity such as walking or biking, increases blood flow throughout your body, including to the brain. With increased blood flow to the brain, you are increasing the amount of oxygen reaching the brain as well.

Secondly: not only is there more oxygen in the brain, but you are increasing the flow of hormones to the brain as well. Hormones are vital to the function of your brain and body in countless ways. One such way is by increasing the amount of growth hormone being released by the body through exercise, there is now more growth hormone reaching the brain, which stimulates the production of more neural connections in the brain, leading to faster and more efficient neural pathways in the brain.

Thirdly: physical activity can have an antidepressant-like effect in the body, by decreasing the amount of stress hormone levels found in the brain. Less stress hormones decreases the amount of inflammation in the brain, allowing your brain to function more smoothly.

As we find ourselves spending more time at home due to the Coronavirus pandemic, working from home, or spending your time homeschooling children all of a sudden, there is plenty to be stressed about, and plenty of excuses to get out of exercising. Though it would be easy to use these excuses to get out of your 150 minutes of exercise per week, exercise may be just what your stressed out brain is begging you for. If you find yourself more stressed out, or are having a harder time focusing these days, going for a walk around the neighborhood, taking a jog, lifting some weights in the living room, or doing a quick yoga class online might just be the cure you are looking for.

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Jessica Rondeau, PTA, BS
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