Exercise and the Brain
Today, we’ll study how aerobic exercise might improve our learning, memory, and cognitive abilities.
As we learned in Lesson 3, adult brains continue to change and grow as the result of experience. The research on rats found that rats living in enriched environments had more neural connections, higher levels of important memory function chemicals, and better overall brain function than the control rats. These rats also had higher levels of something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which is essential for the growth of neurons. Later studies showed that rats from enriched environments also grew new, healthy brain cells in the hippocampus—the area essential for memory and learning. So not only were their cells stronger and more effective, they had more of them.
These findings are fascinating, but things got even cooler when scientists tried to understand what specifically about the enriched environments were contributing to these results. Was it the toys? Was it the gaggle of other rats to play with? When scientists tested the factors systematically, they discovered that one factor alone had the greatest impact on brain function: exercise.
They found that all they had to do was give a rat access to a running wheel and they would see most of the brain changes they had observed in the full-on rat Disneyland. And because of this research, we now know that aerobic activity alone can increase growth of new neurons, increase the number and strength of neural connections, grow new brain cells in the hippocampus, and enable the growth of new blood vessels throughout the brain. We also know that all of these things lead to better memory function. What we don’t know just yet is how it happens, but the fact that it does happen has major implications for all of us.
The evidence clearly suggests that exercise makes your brain stronger. The next question is where to start. If you don’t exercise or if you have any health concerns at all, then you should consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.
Once you’re cleared to get active, begin by starting small. The research suggests that any amount of exercise can have some cognitive and mood benefits—especially if you do it regularly. As you progress, challenge yourself to go a little bit longer or put in a little more effort.
Tomorrow, we’ll study the connection between meditation and brain health.
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