The research is in. Exercise not only benefits the body by keeping your muscles fit and toned, but it benefits your brain by triggering the release of certain proteins that protect the brain and significantly improve cognition.
Researchers at the University of Dublin in Ireland conducted a recent study on the cognitive effects of exercise. They asked a group of young men to watch a lineup of photos that were paired with unfamiliar names and, subsequently, flashed quickly on a screen. After taking a break, the men were asked to recall the names as the photos were, once again, flashed on a screen.
The researchers then took half of the men and asked them to go through an extremely strenuous, 30 minute workout on a stationary bike. The other half were allowed to simply sit quietly for 30 minutes. Then both groups were given the same flash-photo test.
The results were undeniable. The exercising group scored significantly better on the test than did their resting counterparts.
The biological component
Interestingly, blood samples taken during the experiment indicated that the exercising group had higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, and muscle regulatory factor, or MRF. These proteins have been the subject of many recent studies and are now known to promote the growth of healthy nerve and muscle cells, respectively. Additionally, BDNF is not only beneficial for brain function, but is also helpful in protecting aging muscle cells from atrophy.
The emotional component
Exercise has long been used as a treatment for depression. There are several reasons for this. Exercise normalizes insulin levels and boosts natural endorphin production. Endorphins, known as “feel good” hormones, are an essential part of regulating mood. In addition, mental health researchers now know that BDNF levels in depressed patients are critically low.
The nutritional component
Even though exercise increases BDNF in the blood stream, it is important to realize that ingesting sugar counters that benefit. As well as suppressing BDNF, sugar also causes chronic inflammation that adversely affects brain function.
There are many metabolic and biological processes that determine brain health. Engaging in moderate physical activity on a regular basis, however, is an easy way to trigger beneficial chemicals and proteins that can help protect neurons and other brain tissue.
Clark, P. J., Kohman, R. A., Miller, D. S., Bhattacharya, T. K., Brzezinska, W. J. and Rhodes, J. S. (2011), Genetic influences on exercise-induced adult hippocampal neurogenesis across 12 divergent mouse strains. Genes, Brain and Behavior, 10: 345–353