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Neuroplasticity 101: How does exercise help?

No matter what age you are, physical activity is essential to maintain neuroplasticity and prevent cognitive decline, says Stephanie Zoltick.

During the normal aging process, humans inevitably experience cognitive decline – the experience of frequent memory loss, confusion, as well as trouble learning and concentrating. Not surprisingly, research shows that participating in brain-stimulating activities, such as puzzles or math problems, can help keep our brains healthy for as long as possible. 

But research also shows something more unexpected: physical exercise is also important to prevent cognitive decline. It turns out that if you’re worried about your brain health, it is just as important to hit the weights as it is to hit the books. 

An Adapting Brain.

One inherent property of the adult brain is neuroplasticity. It is a myth that your brain grows only during the critical periods of development in early life. The human brain is always adapting to best fit an individual’s surroundings. The property that enables the nervous system to modify its organization in response to learning, new experiences, or changes in an organism’s environment is called neuroplasticity. 

Exercise-induced changes in neuroplasticity are thought to play a critical role in evoking the beneficial effects that are associated with physical activity, including improved memory, cognitive functions, and neuroprotection – the preservation of neuronal structure and function.

How do exercise-induced changes in neuroplasticity keep our brain healthy?

Many studies have been done to elucidate the connections. 

Physical activity is correlated with increased cerebral blood volume and improved VO2 max, an indicator of cardiovascular fitness. Physical activity also promotes the development of new blood vessels in the brain. Those with higher VO2 maxes showed increases in blood oxygenation and blood circulation in the brain. A combination of these factors allows for more efficient bloodstream delivery of nerve cell regulators and proteins to critical brain areas.

Additionally, neurotrophins, proteins that regulate parts of the nervous systems, are positively affected by physical activity. Studies showed that specific neurotropins appeared elevated in the rat and mouse brain after long-term exercise. Neurotrophin levels in other studies increased in mice after 5 weeks of exercise. These are important factors for the survival of nerve cells and are known to have a significant role in neuroplasticity.

Repeated exercise elevates the levels of these neurotrophins by improving delivery to parts of the brain, ultimately yielding increased cognitive performance in spatial memory and recognition tasks, and on a wider scale, a greater capacity for neuroplasticity. This is just one pathway. 

How else does physical activity bring about cognitive benefits like neuroplasticity? 

Multiple pathways, connecting exercise to increased brain health, exist. And numerous studies have shown similar outcomes. 

One study reported physical exercise at age 36 was associated with a slower rate of memory decline between 43 and 53 years of age. The study also showed that participants who engaged in physical exercise at the age of 36 through 43 had the lowest decay in memory at age 53. Other structural brain imaging studies demonstrated that gray matter volume in frontal brain regions, a measure of brain health, was found to be larger for individuals who had reported exercising at least twice a week compared to those who exercised much less or none at all.

It’s important to note that for physical activity to be effective in promoting these cognitive benefits, it must be repeated on a long-term scale. One half-mile run will certainly release endorphins, possibly boost your confidence, and leave you feeling quite energetic and happy. But those feelings will soon fade. 

More to Consider.

Lastly, a broad section of currently available literature supports the idea that physical activity will yield cognitive benefits most effectively when done in combination with cognitive training and activation of task-dependent regions. To fully maximize the benefits of physical activity, research shows that hitting the gym and the library in combination could be helpful. 

Steps to Take Moving Forward.

No matter what stage of life you are currently in – middle schooler, retired citizen, or something in between – it is crucial for you to begin exercising. While starting from a young age builds healthy habits and can be fun, starting later in life is not a deal-breaker and will not inhibit your potential, thanks to neuroplasticity. Begin doing yoga or going on a light jog twice a week. Start small, build your endurance and strength, and gradually increase intensity and duration. The most obvious benefits of exercise, including strengthening muscles and weight management, are not to be understated. But the most exciting benefit is being able to delay the deterioration of our cognitive abilities.

Feature image by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Stephanie Zoltick

Stephanie Zoltick is a rising senior at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland. As a competitive swimmer herself, she is fascinated by the intersection of neuroscience and fitness.

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Neuroplasticity 101: How does exercise help?

by Stephanie Zoltick Reading time: 3 min
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