Surprising truth about exercise and better brain health

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exercise-shown-to-improve-brain-health(NaturalHealth365)  When it comes to the physical and mental benefits of exercise, research has focused on the effects of consistent, long-term exercise routines.  A recent study published in the Journal of Neuroinflammation found that exercise could help improve Alzheimer’s disease by directly and indirectly influencing the immune system and encouraging the growth of new brain cells in a specific area related to memory.

This finding opens up exciting possibilities for further research into how inflammation affects cognitive decline and how physical activity might be used as a treatment.  In fact, earlier research suggests that even a single episode of exercise can offer substantial and immediate brain health dividends, promoting mental clarity and improving cognition.

Exercise will help improve many functions of the brain

A review published in Brain Plasticity was conducted by researchers at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, who reviewed both human and animal research and brain imaging studies to analyze the neural mechanisms and pathways by which acute exercise produces its beneficial effects.

Although the phrase “acute exercise” sounds strenuous, the researchers used it to designate one particular session of physical activity – typically lasting no more than 30 minutes.

According to co-author Julia C. Basso, Ph.D., a research fellow at the Center for Neural Sciences, “acute exercise has profound effects on brain chemistry and physiology.”

The team reported that a single episode of aerobic activity affects the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for complex behavior – causing improved cognition and improved executive function.  (Executive function involves a range of mental skills necessary to accomplish tasks).

A wide range of mental functions are benefited, including attention, working memory, problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, verbal fluency, decision-making, and inhibitory control.  Mental processing speed also increases.

Positive effects from a single exercise session can last for up to two hours post-workout.  In addition (no surprise here), researchers reported that acute exercise enhanced mood and decreased stress.

Consistent exercise delays cognitive decline and many forms of dementia

Researchers report that physical activity can reduce the risk of neurological diseases and protect the brain from the detrimental effects of aging.  The encouraging fact is that exercise’s positive effects accumulate over time, causing long-term, beneficial changes in brain circuits.

As a result, regular physical activity delays cognitive decline and dementia – and can improve symptoms in patients who already suffer from these conditions.

In one study, 100 adults aged 55 to 86 with mild cognitive impairment experienced marked improvements in brain functioning and brain health after a six-month regimen of twice-weekly weightlifting.  Overall cognition increased significantly – with the positive results persisting for a year after the study was concluded.

Ironically, a control group receiving cognitive training showed no improvements.

According to Dr. Basso, exercise can treat age-related cognitive impairment, ADHD, and depression.  In a healthy population, physical activity can enhance mood and attention, improve memory, and promote stress resistance.

How to get important psychological benefits

Acute exercise triggers neurochemical changes that affect large areas of the brain, impacting emotional states and relieving symptoms associated with mood and psychological disorders – such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and more.

The team noted that exercise alleviates negative mood states while enhancing positive moods.  The positive mood effects occurred immediately after exercise and lasted up to a day afterward.

The largest improvements in mood were decreases in tension, depression, anger, and confusion.  Wouldn’t it be great if we had more psychologists (and psychiatrists) talking about these research results?

One reason behind this benefit could be physiological – as acute exercise suppresses the sympathetic nervous system response to stress.

A single day can cause a positive rise in neurotransmitters

The authors also noted that exercise-induced enhancements in cognition were accompanied by increased blood flow to frontal regions of the brain – and by increases in levels of the “feel-good” brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin.

Levels of endogenous opioids and endocannabinoids, the body’s natural painkillers, also increase after acute bouts of exercise.  In addition to pain modulation, these systems are linked with reward, response to stress, improvements in mood, and even euphoria, which causes the well-known phenomenon of “runner’s high.”

In one study, 30 minutes of walking and running at 60 to 70 percent of VO2 max improved mood and cognition – results duplicated repeatedly by other studies.

It’s no wonder that scientists say that regular exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication in treating depression.

How much, and what type, of movement produces cognitive benefits?

The short answer is that a wide range of exercise can be beneficial.  In conducting the review, the authors examined studies involving moderate-to-intense aerobic exercise, such as cycling or running on a treadmill.

Others featured more mild exercise, such as walking, while still others studied the effects of resistance training and weight lifting.  Interestingly, exercise at many different levels – in intensities ranging from very light to very intense – all improved cognitive function.

Studies into the benefits of exercise are ongoing, with researchers still trying to tease out which type of exercise is most effective in improving mood and cognition.  For instance, some studies suggest that moderate-intensity exercise is more beneficial for executive function, while high-intensity activity could be more beneficial for information processing.

Our best advice is to avoid getting too caught up in the details and just get moving comfortably – each and every day – for as many days per week as possible.  Simply put, what activity do you enjoy and get busy doing that – on a regular basis.

The Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week for healthy adults.  Of course, if you have a health condition, consult with a holistic doctor to work out an appropriate exercise routine.

No matter which type of exercise you choose, there’s one undeniable fact: physical activity is a potent therapeutic tool to address depression, alleviate anxiety, and avoid significant cognitive decline.

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