A plethora of research shows exercise may benefit the brain. It is important to recognize different types of exercise in different populations have shown benefits. When considering exercise’s influence on neurobiological mechanisms, type of exercise, interactions and type of measured outcomes should always be considered. For an excellent overview of the influence of exercise on cognition I highly recommend – Exercise and Cognitive Function by McMorris et al. (2009).
Why Exercise is Good for the Brain?
Some of the earliest research showing the effects of exercise on the brain came from neuroscience pioneer Marian Diamond and colleagues (1964). Diamond’s research focused on how the brain changes (neuroplasticity). It looked at rats raised in enriched environments. The study involved three groups of rats: those raised in enriched, standard, and impoverished environments. Enriched environments are those that provide various stimuli created to promote complex sensory experiences. The rats in the enriched environment were exposed to other rats (often involving lots of play among the rats and other interactions), various toys, objects, and running wheels. The rats had the opportunity to live an activity-filled life. Read full article
Your Brain on Exercise
Exercise improves memory and learning in humans and animals. Exercising individuals might be less susceptible to loss of cognitive functioning associated with aging or neurodegenarative disease. One of the key mechanisms underlying these effects on the brain is neuronal growth in the hippocampus — an area of the brain important for cognition (Kobilo, et al., 2010).
In an article published in Trends in Neurosciences (2009), H. Van Pragg made the following comment:
“Exercise is a quantifiable activity that improves cognition in young and aged animals and humans. The beneficial effects of exercise are likely to be mediated in part by hippocampal neurogenesis. Further investigation into the functional significance of neurogenesis, by designing behavioral tasks that are specific for the dentate gyrus, will help to determine the relative contribution of the new cells.
The effects of exercise are enhanced by dietary supplements. However, the concept that nutrition has a direct influence on brain function is not well accepted. This is due, in part, to the large number of natural products that claim benefits for cognition, the lack of identification of specific active molecules and the limited number of intervention studies in humans.” Read full article
Exercise Improves Children’s Cognition
Davis et al. (2011) conducted an experiment to test the hypothesis that exercise would improve executive function (high order cognitive functions mediated by prefrontal cortex circuitry- judgement, plannning, decision making, goal attainment, inhibitory control, social behavior, integration of cognition and emotion, attentional control, working memory). The study involved sedentary, overweight 7- to 11-year-old children. The participants were randomized to 13 ± 1.6 weeks of an exercise program (20 or 40 minutes/day), or a control condition. Blinded, standardized psychological evaluations were used to measure cognition and academic achievement. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (*FMRI) measured brain activity during executive function tasks.
A specific improvement on executive function and brain activation changes due to exercise were observed. In addition to its importance for maintaining weight, reducing health risks, and improving fitness levels, exercise may prove to be a simple, important method of enhancing aspects of children’s mental functioning that are important for cognitive development. It is important that educators recognize these findings, and findings from other studies (Taras, 2005) that have shown similar results. Implementing vigorous physical activity into the school curriculum may lead to increased cognitive performance. Read full article
Exercise A Key Foundation of Brain Health
Wendy Suzuki (professor at New York University & author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life) designed a course that includes a combination of neuroscience lecture and aerobic exercise (11). She was interested in answering whether or not performing aerobic exercise once a week for fifteen weeks could improve memory. She compared the results of students in neuroscience class that includes exercise (aerobic exercise) with students in a neuroscience class that didn’t include exercise. A significant improvement was found in response time, regarding a memory task, for those in the exercise group relative to the non-exercise group. Even though an overall improvement was not seen in correct responses, just once a week exercise had a significant effect on processing speed, so with more frequent exercise it is maybe more benefits would have occurred. What would have happened if participants exercised three to four times per week?
In another study Suzuki was involved in participants with traumatic brain injury were tested before and after an eight-week exercise program, that consisted of performing aerobic activity twice per week (12). The exercise group was compared with a control group. A significant improvement in mood and quality-of-life measures was found for those who were in the exercise group versus the control group. Read full article