The positive effects between exercise and brain function are well-documented, but what exactly about the brain does it affect? Does exercise make us smarter? If so, what type of exercise and how much of it?
These are the types of questions that come up when the connection between physical activity and brain function is mentioned.
The short answer is yes. Exercise does make you smarter: it improves your memory, processing speed, and attention span.
There seem to be many reasons why exercise is beneficial to the brain and its function.
According to research conducted by the University of Texas, Southwestern (UT Southwestern), aerobic exercise seems to increase blood flow to areas of the brain associated with memory, “the hippocampus, anterior cingulate cortex and other frontal regions.”
This may, in turn, boost memory and improve cognition, especially in older adults, and is being further investigated for its therapeutic implications for Alzheimer’s (“Exercise improves memory,” 2020).
Improved memory is not the only benefit that exercise has on the brain, our thinking skills benefit too. It seems to also improve our ability to make plans, to pay attention, to solve problems and to reason verbally (“Exercise can boost,” 2021).
How Does Exercise Improve Brain Function?
As mentioned in the study by UT Southwestern, increased blood flow to the brain during exercise might contribute to the boost in function. This is likely due to increased delivery of oxygen and nutrients and the positive effects that exercise has on blood vessels in general.
A post by Harvard Health Publishing on the effects of exercise on memory and thinking expands more on how exactly exercise improves brain function.
It mentions that it involves both direct and indirect pathways including reduced inflammation and the production of growth factors that build new blood vessels to the brain; this improves blood flow.
Those who exercise regularly seem to have a bigger hippocampus as well, an area of the brain very involved in memory and learning (Godman, 2014).
Lastly, exercise’s positive effect on sleep, mood, stress management, and anxiety may also contribute to this plethora of benefits to the brain (“Exercise can boost,” 2021).
How Much Exercise and What Type?
According to a study carried out by Alsubaie Et al. (2020), aimed at figuring out which type of exercise most benefits cognitive function and which age group benefits most, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise seems to yield the most benefits, especially in older adults.
While the UT Southwestern study was carried out for a whole year, it seems that it may only take six months of regular moderate-intensity exercise to start reaping the brain functions benefits from exercise.
It is recommended to build an exercise habit and to steadily increase intensity if desired.
Food and Brain Function
A healthy diet is an important part of leading a healthy lifestyle. If brain health is the focus, foods high in fiber and rich in antioxidants can help improve the health of blood vessels that deliver blood to the brain.
This includes foods from plant sources including fruit and vegetables, as well as grains and legumes. Foods containing Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are also known to keep the brain healthy. These include nuts, seeds, and certain types of seafood like fatty fish.
Exercise is not just good for your heart, but for your brain function as well. Remember to exercise regularly to promote healthy aging and maybe even delay age-associated memory loss or Alzheimer’s.
Make exercise a habit so that you can reap the benefits in the long run and practice a healthy lifestyle.
- Exercise improves memory, boosts blood flow to brain. (2020, May 20). Retrieved from https://www.utsouthwestern.edu/newsroom/articles/year-2020/exercise-improves-memory-boosts-blood-flow-to-brain.html
- Exercise can boost your memory and thinking skills. (2021, February 15). Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-can-boost-your-memory-and-thinking-skills
- Godman, H. (2014, April 10). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
- Alsubaie, S. F., Alkathiry, A. A., Abdelbasset, W. K., & Nambi, G. (2020, December 19). The Physical Activity Type Most Related to Cognitive Function and Quality of Life. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/bmri/2020/8856284/