Getting adequate exercise has been linked to better brainpower for a while now — it turns out the increased blood and hormone circulation promoted by physical activity is at least as good for our brains as it is for everything else.
Aerobic movements such as running, walking, dancing and swimming send more oxygen to your brain as well as release hormones that regulate mood and proteins that promote the growth of brain cells.
It also lowers inflammation and oxidative stress throughout the body, which can lead to brain fog, slower thinking and depression, particularly as we age. Inflammation has also been linked to some forms of dementia.
Several studies have shown people who exercise regularly have larger prefrontal cortexes and hippocampuses than those who don’t, traits which have been tied to better memory, learning and executive function (working memory, focus, flexible thinking and other abilities). Research on animals and small human studies on strength/resistance training also have found some correlation with improved neurological performance, but not as clearly yet as with cardio movement.
These are just a few of the ways exercise may boost our brainpower throughout our lives. Other links that have been found include:
Growth and connections
Chemical reactions triggered by stronger blood and hormonal flow spark the creation of new neurons and connections between existing neurons. This ability is called neuroplasticity and allows us to learn new concepts, retain our current abilities and strengthen some areas of brain activity to compensate for others in decline.
Mood and anxiety
Physical exercise has long been tied to the release of endorphins, which improve mood, known as the “runner’s high.” This is accompanied by reductions in the brain’s response to stress and anxiety, which are known to impair brain function. Anxiety is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Frequent exercise is linked to having a thicker cerebral cortex. Thinning of the cerebral cortex, the top layer of the brain, has been detected in middle-aged and older adults and has been a possible marker of cognitive decline and neurological disease.
Improved subcortical matter
Physically fit older adults have been shown to have greater integrity within this region found below the brain’s cerebral cortex, or “gray matter.” Also known as “white matter,” these nerve endings and cells are deeper within the brain and form the neural network that allows all regions of the cerebral cortex to communicate and collaborate to perform various mental operations.
Scientists have reported it doesn’t appear that intense physical activity is required for you to build and fortify your brainpower — every little bit helps. One analysis released in 2019 found every hour of low-intensity activity and every day people took at least 7,500 steps was associated with higher brain volume.
So while moderate- to high-intensity workouts are recommended for improved physical fitness, less demanding activities like walking at a leisurely pace can increase and invigorate your brain activity as well!