Much has been reported on the physical benefits of exercising. From weight management to decreased incidence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, regular physical activity can have a monstrous impact on health. In addition to the benefits for the rest of the body, recent studies are shedding light on the exercise effects on your brain.

First of all, any type of exercise will increase the heart rate and subsequently, blood flow to every part of the body, including the brain. As our blood is the nutrient transporter of the body, more oxygen and energy will enter our brains during physical activity. Improved cognitive function and working memory will increase after exercise and studies have shown a correlation between daily physical activity and improved academic performance and behavior in children and teenagers.

Hormonally, the exercise effects on your brain have also shown to be positive. Exercise will decrease the amount of stress hormones leading to less tension, anxiety and depression. The most exciting findings are that these benefits occur both acutely and chronically. This indicates that not only will exercise temporarily improve mood and relieve stress, but regular physical activity can continually increase positive feelings and decrease negative emotional and psychological sensations.

In addition to the diminished release of stress hormones due to some sweaty movement, brain cell building hormones are pressed into service. These foremen of the cell construction will not only increase the number of brain cells, called neurons, but also facilitate connections between the neurons. Increased neurons and connections equate to upgraded cognitive skills such as information processing, scheduling, planning and both short and long term memory retention.

The numbers of neurons in our brains begin to decrease at the age of thirty and some neurological diseases can result from significant loss. Positive results from regular physical activity across the lifespan has been shown to lessen the impact of any losses, due to a larger amount of neurons to begin with, and slow down the forfeiture of these cells over time. Also, the incidence of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease is lower in individuals who exercise regularly.

Any type of exercise that increases heart rate is positive for the brain as well, though a combination of higher intensity resistance and anaerobic training and lower intensity aerobic exercise is recommended. Other guidelines to maximize the exercise effects on your brain include performing activity first thing in the morning to increase cognitive function and decrease stress for the day ahead. Workouts should be altered regularly to continually challenge the mind and body to adapt. Exercise that challenge coordination, such as dance classes or athletic participation, and frequently redirects attention, such as circuit training, is also recommended. Regular physical activity, even if small spurts throughout the day, is the key to allowing exercise to support brain growth and function.

This is a guest post by Kyle Bangen, MS, CSCS

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