Young Mind from a Healthy Body
Most people believe that the only way to maintain a sharp mind is by completing intellectual activities such as reading, solving problems or studying new information. However, studies show that physical exercise is actually highly effective in keeping the mind healthy along with the body. These studies reiterate the importance of physical activity in regards to the overall well-being of a person.
Exercise as a Trigger for Chemical Release
How exactly does exercise aid the brain? A 2011 study conducted by the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil found that older rats that were sedentary showed signs of a reversal of memory impairment after a short exercise session. The exercise consisted of four to six minutes spent on a treadmill.
The memory of the rats was then tested using a maze and an activity that required the rat to remember information to avoid a negative response. After the brief exercise sessions, memory was proven to have been improved through these cognitive tests.
Even the small amount of exercise the previously sedentary rats engaged in during the studies triggered a chemical process in the brain. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was secreted in the brains of the rats after they had engaged in physical activity. BDNF is a protein in the brain that significantly influences memory, learning ability and the thought process.
A study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles determined that the increase in cognitive ability influenced by exercise was specifically tied to BDNF synthesis and release in the brain.
How Much Exercise Is Enough?
Establishing that exercise is essential for brain health is certainly helpful, but determining the type and duration of exercise that can most benefit brain health is also important.
The Franklin Institute explains that walking is one of the best physical activities for brain health. A simple walk can increase blood flow to the brain, and studies have found a strong correlation between walking for exercise and maintaining good brain health. One study showed that elderly people improved their memory and ability to learn simply by taking a 20 minute walk every day. Additionally, the study group had a lower risk of stroke as compared to their sedentary counterparts.
A 2001 study conducted by the University of California at San Francisco concluded that older women who stayed active maintained more of their cognitive ability when compared to their less active counterparts. The study showed that the greatest decrease in the loss of cognitive ability was found in women who walked at least 113 blocks per week.
Because of the connection found between regular exercise and cognitive function, including at least 20 minutes of moderate physical activity most days of the week is recommended. A moderate physical activity can consist of any of the following:
- Riding a bike
- Swimming at a slow pace
- Walking briskly
- Jogging slowly
- Using an elliptical trainer
- Participating in team sports including baseball, softball and volleyball
- Digging and planting a garden
Although a person can break their exercise sessions up, a person must engage in moderate exercise for at least 10 consecutive minutes to enjoy the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Two exercise sessions of 10 minutes per day provide the most mental and physical benefits for a previously sedentary person.
The Precise Benefits of Exercise for Brain Health
There are a variety of benefits that exercise has in regards to brain health, and an improved memory and capacity for learning are not the limit of these benefits. In fact, a 2001 study conducted by the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom concluded that regular physical exercise could improve mood even in those suffering from depression. The study found that a group of people in the study participating in regular exercise actually maintained a positive mood longer than those who took the anti-depressant Zoloft to regulate moods.
The study also indicated that participants who tried a combination of exercise and Zoloft did not have the same level of mood elevation as those who only exercised. The assumption of researchers is that the Zoloft actually dampened the positive effects of exercise in participants suffering from depression. The results of this study may be particularly useful for patients and therapists who would like to take a drug-free approach to treating depression. Instead of medication, regular exercise may be prescribed to a patient.
The increase in mood in participants in the study was found to be most significant in participants who had been diagnosed with depression before the study. Participants not identified as being depressed prior to the study had a less pronounced increase in mood.
Research involving older populations has shown that engaging in regular physical activity decreases the possibility of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Dementia is a debilitating disease that seriously impacts a person’s ability to function and connect with family members, friends and past acquaintances. Because dementia is not a reversible condition, starting an exercise regimen to help prevent this progressive cognitive impairment is important before any signs or symptoms of the disease are detected. Even after a person starts showing signs of dementia, regular exercise can help slow the progress of the disease.
Many people believe that physical exercise has only physical benefits, but it’s been proven that regular activity also keeps the brain healthy. Whether a forgetful person wants to get better at remembering names in a social situation or an aging person want to prevent the possibility of developing dementia, physical exercise in an effective means of improving brain function. Even 20 minutes of walking per day can drastically improve a person’s cognitive ability, and there are physical benefits to be enjoyed as well.