How exercise really affects the functions of your brain

Hardly a day goes by without new scientific research highlighting the advantages of physical exercise for improving cognitive function and mental health. Indeed, recent studies have proven that exercise has a profound impact in reducing depression, anxiety and ADHD whilst boosting levels of neurological chemicals responsible for regulating mood and improving concentration.

A recent study from Harvard Men’s Health Watch endorses such a view, asserting that regular intense exercise offers a plethora of advantages to cognitive function. Exercising regularly and intensely maintains healthy blood pressure, improves concentration, and lowers stress and anxiety, factors which all lead to a healthy brain. The scientific reasoning behind such benefits are namely that exercise releases chemicals (BDNF) involved in improving memory function and concentration. When you exercise you use more brain cells, which in turn activates more BDNF. Indeed, the University of British Columbia reached a similar conclusion in their 2012 survey, discovering that regular exercise boosts the region of the hippocampus – the area responsible for memory and concentration. To those who maintain a sedentary life, it is never too late to change lifestyle habits. “Engaging in a programme of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr Scott Mcginnis, leading neurology professor at Harvard Medical School.

The benefits of exercise are not only limited to improving memory and enhancing concentration. Recent studies have proven that regular activity can prevent, delay or control the onset of mental illnesses. A combination of both human and animal studies has proven that exercise triggers the release of serotonin, beta-endorphins and various neurological growth, all of which are directly responsible in enhancing mood.

So, how exactly does exercise relate to wellbeing, one may ask?  A 2013 study by the University of Finland on the impact of regular exercise on severe depression may provide the answers: the study concluded that individuals who exercise regularly (approximately at least two to three times a week) experienced a significant reduction in depression and stress compared to those suffering from mental illnesses who maintain a largely sedentary lifestyle. They reached the  conclusion that exercise is ‘significantly more effective’ than pharmacological intervention in treating clinical depression. Those who exercised regularly were also found to have stronger self-esteem, social integration skills and higher quality of life.

Moreover, other less biological explanations for any association between exercise and common mental disorders focus on concepts of self-esteem, social support and perception of control and mastery. Any relationship may also be bidirectional, with the symptoms of common mental disorders contributing to lower levels of physical activity. Where experts disagree, however, is the extent to which exercise may boost overall cognitive function and mental well-being.  Whilst exercise is a promising solution for short-term mood enhancement and cognitive function, there is a significant lack of large-scale trials to create consolidated evidence.

The majority of studies have yielded positive results on the effectiveness of physical exercise on cognitive function. Whilst such evidence may reach differing conclusions for their hypothesis, one thing is clear: exercise is a promising approach for a higher quality of life.

Image: Emily Lowes

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