Exercise Enhances Your Brain Function
If we have heard it once, we have heard it many times: exercise is good for us. We can understand that exercise helps keep our body physically healthy as well as manage our weight. It increases our heart rate and circulation, oxygenates our body and puts endorphins into our system, which also help our moods. This need for exercise has become more prominent as our country’s inhabitants become more and more overweight. Diabetes among children has increased drastically. We are leading lives that are more sedentary, eating fast foods that provide convenience for us in our busy lives, and not exercising enough. ABC News reported in 2001 that children were spending 4.8 hours per day in front of TV’s, computers, and video games. Schools are cutting PE from their curriculum. We are hearing the message even if we haven’t changed our lifestyles or taken it very seriously.
But did you know that exercise helps our brain, even protects it? Sitting in front of the T.V. or computer is not going to make us smarter. But getting out and taking a walk or going for a run can actually increase our mental ability. It builds the brain. “Doing” does create a healthy person in both the mind and body.
So how does it happen? Raising your heart rate increases the blood flow to the brain, which gives our brain the nutrients and the oxygen for alertness and mental focus. Aerobic exercise actually grows new brain cells as shown when tested in animals. In neuro-imaging used to observe the effects of exercise on the human brain, researchers found that physical activity changed the brain’s structure and function in ways that improve decision-making. They found increased connections between neurons in parts of the brain that help a person pay better attention. Focus was better and subjects were able to hone in on the relevant information needed to perform tasks.
Walking is especially good for your brain. It increases the amount of blood circulation, oxygen, and glucose that reaches your brain. Because walking isn’t strenuous, your muscles aren’t taking up the extra oxygen and glucose that other exercises may use. It oxygenates your brain so walking may actually “clear your head”. Walking has been shown to improve memory skills and learning with better concentration and abstract reasoning. (Journal of Applied Psychology, October 2000)
And there is a direct correlation between how much you exercise and how it will benefit your brain, showing less cognitive decline with more exercise. This shows a direct relationship between fitness and brain health. It was found that for every extra mile walked per week, there was 13% less chance of cognitive decline. (Yaffe, Geriatric Psychiatry) Another study found that people who practiced a regular regimen of physical exercise and were physically fit had bigger brains than those less active. (National Academy of Science Journal)
Other studies show that running has been found to boost brain cell survival in mice with neurodegenerative disease (similar to Alzheimer’s). When the mice were sedentary, most of the newly born brain cells died. Running “saved” many of these cells. It also reduced the accumulation of molecules associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Running is a brain boost in the area of the hippocampus which is in the part of the brain that is linked to memory and learning and is affected by Alzheimers. (Nature, Aug 20, 1998)
Physical exercise also has a protective effect on the brain and its mental processes. It stimulates the body to fight stress that normally occurs in the brain.
Mental health providers are aware of this and are using exercise to help increase the attention span in children with attention deficit disorder (Dr. John Ratey, Harvard Medical School). He admits that it comes as a big surprise that physical activity is a big promoter for keeping our brains healthy and adaptive. Schools may need to rethink their position on eliminating physical education from the children’s day. Exercise helps the brain to focus. Researchers from the University of Illinois found that increased oxygen to the brain improved the brain’s ability to focus its attention on everyday tasks and goals.
So with the start of school, perhaps it would be good to add a 15 minute run to your child’s daily schedule before they sit down to do their homework. And while you are implementing this, perhaps you, as the parent, want to join them!
Barclay, L (2006) Exercise may have neuroprotective effect. Retrieved August 2006 from http://medscape.com.
Journal of Applied Psychology, October 2000.
Kotulak, R. (2006) Exercise for the body is food for brain. Retrieved August 2006 from http//www.ediets.com.
National Academy of Science Journal
Nature, Aug 20, 1998.
Ratey, J Harvard Medical School.
The Human Brain. (2006, August). The Franklin Institute from www.fi.edu/brain.
Warner, J. (2006) Exercise keeps the brain fit. Retrieved August 2006 from http://www.webmd.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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