Midterms are coming, the gym is calling: here are three helpful brain functions enhanced by exercise
Abigail Dickerson, Visual Arts Editor
The feeling of mental clarity after a workout and brain fog after spending a day in bed is a correlation. Brain function is something that is directly impacted by your physical activity on a daily basis and long term. As a student, Younts Fitness Center is the place to start.
“Exercise in various forms can significantly impact cognitive function and mental health, and be both protective against disease and aid in restoring function after an illness,” said Jeffery Williams, a professor of health science at North Greenville University and former physical therapist.
Three brain functions that are greatly improved by regular movement include neuroplasticity, improved mood and higher blood flow to the brain said, Williams. Despite the vast benefits of activity to brain function, not all take that approach.
“I do not believe physical activity is one of the first things recommended in modern healthcare”, said Williams. Clinicians are often burned out and not focused on holistic care or are just not taught this in the current medical school model he said.
According to the National Library of Medicine, neural plasticity is defined as the ability of the nervous system to perform adaptive structural and functional changes. It involves learning and memory, the synthesis of new neurons as well as the repair of damaged connections said Williams.
This means that when exercise occurs, the brain is able to function at a higher capacity. Consider physical movement as a kickstart to mental processes such as memory and healing damage. “Physical activity has been shown to increase this process,” said Williams.
One strong benefit of exercise is the increase of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is released during exercise said Shannon Dobson, NGU psychology professor.
According to the National Institutes for Health, “the levels of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF for short) increase after exercise.”
There are several different reasons it does this, they are described in depth in an article from the National Library of Medicine, he said. One main reason that exercise improves neuroplasticity is that it “induces the release of metabolites and proteins from the muscle, liver and bones that converge on the activation of brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” said the library.
- Improved mood/decreased depression
If you have ever felt generally happier after working out, there is a scientific reason why this happens.
When you work out, your body produces more of certain hormones that affect mood positively. Exercise stimulates the production of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine, which are important for mood regulation and cognitive function said Williams.
Many doctors prescribe regular movement and outdoor activity alongside medication for mental health-related issues. This includes aerobic exercise, resistance training and mindfulness exercises said Williams.
While many doctors understand the benefits of physical activity in treating mental disorders such as anxiety and depression, some people just want an easier method such as medication. This is an equivalent of an 80’s workout disc that claims you can “lose 30 pounds in two weeks”, it isn’t physically sustainable in the long term. “We are way too focused on a quick fix, the pharmaceutical industry has way too much influence over healthcare,” said Williams.
3. Improved brain blood flow
Working out increases blood flow through the heart, which in turn increases the blood supply to the brain. In the way that we need food to eat, our brain needs blood to function. This is why something such as a heart attack can be fatal because it deprives the heart and brain of blood.
Exercise is an important way to get the blood pumping through the brain at a faster pace. Do you ever feel more powerful and ready to take on the world after you have eaten a full meal? The same goes for blood flow to the brain. The more blood, the more the brain can do.
Physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, which helps to deliver oxygen and nutrients that are essential for brain function said Williams.
“Sedentary aging has long been associated with a decrease in cerebral blood flow which can lead to cognitive decline, dementia and stroke,” he said.
This means that in order to improve functions such as memory and motor skills, physical activity of some kind is needed. In order to not forget everything in the study guide on the morning of midterms, be active and keep the blood flowing.
Overall, if the goal is improving brain functions, getting out of bed is the first step. There is no need to be a bodybuilder or marathon runner at first, start simple.
The Huberman Lab podcast provides more information for students on brain health and various factors including nutrition, supplements and physical activity.