How Exercise Improves Brain Function

Laura Williams, M.S.Ed.
Staying active

If all the news about how regular exercise decreases your chances of getting heart disease or cancer hasn't motivated you to start moving, maybe learning how exercise improves brain function will finally get you off the coach. Numerous studies have indicated that regular exercise and physical fitness improves memory and fends off dementia-definitely something you want to keep in mind as you age.

Exercise Recommendations for Adults

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, adults should incorporate at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise on most days of the week. And, in addition to aerobic exercise, adults should perform eight to ten strength building exercises on two days a week.

Most people think that these recommendations are specifically to help ward off cardiovascular disease and diabetes, but the truth is, exercise can help prevent cancer, depression and osteoporosis. And, with a nationwide incidence of dementia affecting roughly five to eight percent of the population over age 65 (a statistic that doubles for every five years over 65 years that you age), the fact that exercise can help stave off dementia should have you hitting the gym with regularity.

How Exercise Improves Brain Function

When you exercise, your heart starts pumping harder and you start breathing faster in order to deliver the oxygen your body needs to its cells. This in turn increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain, a process that can stimulate new cell growth.

Every day your body undergoes cell turnover. Cells get damaged through oxidative stress and must be replaced by new cells. As you age, your body tends to stop generating as many new cells as it needs to replace the old ones. Sometimes this results in a loss of muscle mass, other times in a slowing of brain function. When you can continue to replace the cells you lose each day with new cells, you can effectively reduce some of the side effects of aging.

Regular exercise appears to stimulate cell growth that can maintain, or even improve your overall brain function. If you're able to generate more brain cells than you actually need to replace the ones that are damaged, those new cells can branch out and make new connections, ultimately improving cognition.

Add to that the fact that regular exercise helps keep your veins and arteries clear of blockages. By preventing a reduced blood flow to the brain, you're enabling your body to deliver the blood and oxygen that your brain needs throughout the day.

The process is complicated, and researchers still haven't pinpointed how it all works, but the fact is: people who exercise more tend to have better mental acuity as they age.

Reap the Rewards

In a perfect world, everyone would maintain the American College of Sports Medicine recommendations for physical activity, but sometimes that's just not possible. If 30 minutes of exercise sounds like too much, shoot for the following:

  • Perform cardiovascular exercise that causes you to breathe harder and break a sweat for at least 15 minutes, three days a week. Several studies indicate that it only takes that much exercise to help prevent dementia.
  • Try new fitness activities. It's hard mental work to learn a new skill, and if that skill requires physical coordination, your brain has to work even harder. There's evidence that learning new physical activities can stimulate your cerebellum and prefrontal cortex, improving judgment and decision-making.

If you want to have the mental power to beat all your friends in bridge at the senior activity center, learning how exercise improves brain function should give you the extra boost to start getting active.

How Exercise Improves Brain Function