Exercise has long been recognized as beneficial to your waistline and heart health, and it is widely promoted. However, the benefits of exercise on the brain and mental health have been a more mainstream topic of discussion in recent years. Many people may still be confused as to why physical activity has such surprising and profound brain benefits.
The neurobiology science that drives this behaviour is both technical and interesting. However, you don’t have to be a neurologist to comprehend how and why exercise affects your brain.
Exercise’s Effects on the Brain?
A little explanation of something called a brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, is helpful to begin explaining the good benefits of exercise on your brain. Without getting too scientific, BDNF is a protein found in the brain that helps in the health of your brain cells by encouraging new cell growth and enhancing cell communication.
BDNF has been compared to brain fertilizer by others. Neuroplasticity is aided by high levels of BDNF in the brain, which allows our brains to grow, alter, and adapt more quickly in response to the world around us. Low BDNF levels, on the other hand, have been linked to depression, anxiety, memory issues, and long-term brain damage.
So, if BDNF is so beneficial to the brain, how can we increase our production of it? BDNF is produced when the brain is activated, as it turns out. Much historical research focused on “brain game” exercises like word problems and crossword puzzles to stimulate the brain. While these activities are beneficial, newer and more compelling data reveals that physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, is the most effective BDNF brain booster.
Best Exercise for Your Brain?
Some preliminary comparisons between moderate-intensity continuous training, or MICT, and high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, suggest that HIIT results in higher levels of BDNF in circulation than MICT. However, considerable research needs to be done to discover the ideal exercise mechanism, the variations between fit and obese or overweight people, and the metric used to determine a HIIT target.
When it comes to high-intensity interval training (HIIT), the brain experiences a variety of short- and long-term responses and impacts. Immediate advantages of HIIT workouts include enhanced mood and cognitive performance that can linger for several hours after the workout is over. Furthermore, measurable differences in BDNF can be shown after just one HIIT workout, but these are usually transient and revert to normal approximately an hour after the workout.
Endorphins and endocannabinoids, the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals, are released after a 20- to 30-minute (endorphin) and several-hour (endocannabinoid) HIIT workout, respectively.
Exercise’s Long-Term Effects on Your Mental Health?
Exercise has remarkable long-term effects on the brain and mental health. In general, exercise raises dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine levels, which all contribute to a person’s sense of well-being, memory enhancement, and reward sensations. Resistance and weight training tend to be less effective than cardiovascular and aerobic (especially HIIT) activity in inducing an increase in circulating BDNF.
After just three months of consistent aerobic and HIIT training, sustained increases in BDNF can be demonstrated. Regular exercise boosts insulin receptor density and IGF-1, which aids insulin in controlling blood glucose levels. The favourable effects of exercise on a person’s stress response, particularly the “toxic stress response” commonly associated with unpleasant childhood events, continue to increase and evolve in research and literature.
Exercise improves cortical reorganization, neuroplasticity, and neurogenesis by increasing the volume of some brain regions (six to 12 months). A regular aerobic exercise practice has also been shown to aid in the prevention or decrease of age-related cellular function loss in grey and white matter. Naturally, all of these brain benefits are accompanied by long-term decreases in cardiovascular risk factors linked to the dangers of cognitive impairment and dementia. It is impossible to overestimate the benefits of exercise on the brain.
Physical activity is often free and easily accessible when we consider all of the instruments at our disposal now to combat what continues to be a growing mental health issue in our country. I believe that as more individuals in our society become aware of the health benefits of exercise, we will be able to make more progress in improving brain health across the lifespan.