So, it’s summer time and you’ve finally become serious about showing off that seductively tempting body of yours. You re-learn how to use the treadmill after a six-month hiatus, or secretly stare at other gym members through the mirror to see how they use free weights. After a couple of sessions, you start to build enough motivation to make physical activity a part of your regular routine. And, like most of us, exercise = washboard abs, toned glutes, and just not passing out after climbing a flight of stairs. But what’s even more impressive is that the science behind physical training is a hearty formula for increasing brain function, preventing neurological disease, improving mood, diminishing stress and anxiety, as well as enhancing memory! Let's take a closer look:
My (insert problem) is stressing me out!
In today’s world there are plenty of life commitments and situations that cause stress. In fact, the World Health Organization has deemed “stress” as the Health Epidemic of the 21st Century. In nature, the stress hormone cortisol is a natural stimulus created by the adrenal cortex of the brain in order for it to react to situations of imminent threat. The process of gluconeogenesis (formation of glucose) allows for sudden release of energy from stored reserves (like fat) to supply the brain with fuel for high priority actions. In addition, cortisol is a highly effective anti-inflammatory agent, fighting against sources that cause allergies, rashes, and diseases. A commonly used over-the-encounter topical medication for inflammation relief is hydrocortisone, which is an identical molecule to cortisol.
….Therefore, it's safe to say that we all have stress, and the strongest drug that not only reduces stress and its long-term damaging effects, but also reverses it, is physical activity. Chronic stress inhibits the pathways of our brains to produce natural “happy” chemicals, such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Which makes sense since we are only supposed to be stressed in LIFE-THREATENING moments, not ALL the time. And yet, the human species has evolved more reasons to be stressed out than a gazelle who consciously chooses to drink water in front of a pack of lions.
These "happy" chemicals are essential to FEELING ALIVE AND HEALTHY! How much so you may ask? Inhibition of these “happy” pathways and over-activation of the stress pathway causes depression, suppressed memory function, diminished sex drive, interference from learning, reduction of sperm, mental illness, rapid aging, reduced immunity, shortened life span…and the list goes on.
A multitude of studies, most notably out of UCSF and Harvard, have shown that vigorous daily exercise reverses the aging of cells and re-allocates blood flow to the entire brain. This reallocation provides blood oxygenation to brain tissue that does not normally get that much blood flow during inactivity. With more capillaries in the brain being created, more nutrients and energy are readily delivered to the global neuron network.
So, for example, let's say you are moping around your living room ruminating over your colleague commenting on how you look like you gained a few pounds. This repetitive thinking is driving stress, focusing only a specific part of the brain to be stimulated. Just going on a run in that moment will immediately redirect blood to other parts of the brain that are being activated for physical activity, while simultaneously releasing "feel-good" chemicals. After a 12 minute run, you will be itching to execute the perfect comeback. That's the power of motivation from exercise.
Has anyone seen my memory?
Memory function is undoubtedly a vital brain activity for development and growth. The hippocampus and parahippocampus are the regions of the brain that are highly involved in sorting information into short-term and long-term memory banks, in addition to processing our spatial awareness of the surrounding environment. Our brain's white fiber tracts and neurons intimately connect our emotion and learning pathways to memory (the pre-frontal cortex-hippocampus-amygdala connection). For this reason, the more emotionally and cognitively invested we are in specific experiences of our lives the more likely that information is stored into long-term memory and learned for future experiences.
Regular, moderately intense exercise stimulates brain regions involved in memory to produce a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This chemical is only produced in the brain, and cannot be acquired through external resources (such as a pill). Increases in BDNF promote neuron growth and new connections. What this means is that only exercising twice a week is not going to enhance memory function. A daily routine of intense, complicated physical activity provides the maximum brainpower. The more complicated your exercise regimen (yoga, dance, soccer, weight-lifting, biking) the greater your capacity to enhance executive function (planning, organizing, coupling past experiences with present actions) through coordination and focused attention. Studies in mice, from the University of Illinois, have shown that the more enriched the environment of physicality, the greater the cognitive ability of the little guys (neurogenesis). This entails that exercise improves thinking more than actual thinking does.
Ahh, yes, now I feel it
If being more intelligent is not a sufficient incentive for exercising, then endorphins certainly will be. Endorphins are classified as opiates. Name sound familiar? These “feel-good” chemicals of our brain are in the same class as many drugs such as morphine and heroin. But, in this case, endorphins are produced naturally by our brains, opportunely allowing us to get high without the consequences of drug use.
The release of endorphins is an adaptive behavior that mediates pain during injury, and stimulates pleasure during stages of sexual arousal and bonding.
Alzheimer’s Disease at Bay
In 1906, German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer described the first case of “strange behavioral symptoms” with short-term memory and language disability. This disease would later become the world’s leading cause of dementia (mental decline) and memory loss among elderly people.
What’s the cause of such a debilitating disease?
Though the exact cause of Alzheimer's disease is difficult to determine, current research suggests that a build up of toxic proteins causes plaques and tangles to progressively, and irreversibly, spread throughout the brain. This build-up disrupts neurons from working effectively, over time leading to cell death and neuron loss (neurodegeneration). This process begins with the hippocampus and eventually spreads all the way down to the brainstem, which controls automatic functions such as breathing and heart rate.
Ok, now for the punchline…
Since exercise rewires your brain circuitry to be more robust (and less susceptible to disease), it is even more imperative for active, regular exercise in the aging population. With Alzheimer’s disease on the rise (projected rates to triple by 2050; 1 in 4 of the baby boomer pop.), protecting and activating the regions of the brain that are affected first by the disease is the best solution to prevention and slowing it’s progression. A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that exercise in “mildly cognitive impaired” individuals is one of the most powerful treatments to this day for prevention and reversibility of the disease.
- 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise a week, for 12 weeks, showed significant increase and efficiency in brain activation of 11 different brain regions through fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).
- Adults in their 60s who start exercising cut their risk of dementia in HALF compared to adults who do not.
- Starting into the 70s, the planning and executive decision-making lobe of the brain begins to literally shrink.
You no longer need to look for the right incentive to get in shape...your brain already gave you one.