Lets all go for a run: does exercise really help the brain?
Should I go run a marathon, join a yoga class, or head off to the gym? Is it really worth the time and effort? Afterall, sitting down and watching television can seem just as appealing. Why even bother working out? The reasons to work out may be greater than you think. Physical activity can make you feel good, keep you in shape, keep you healthy, but now researchers also are finding biological evidence that exercise benefits specific brain mechanisms. Just as exercise improves muscle tone and function, it may also have similar effects on the brain.
Some people have thought that exercise positively affects the brain as well as the body. Preliminary evidence suggests that physically active people have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people do (2). It seems logical that an active lifestyle would help the brain. However, the scientific observations were lacking. Now several biological studies indicate that working out does benefit the brain. This new insight may point more towards the notion that exercise has overall health benefits and also may lead to specialized physical activity programs for patients (1). Exercise may improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress, according to research into the effect of exercise on neurochemicals involved in the body's stress response (2). These findings come from animal as well as human studies and are leading to a better understanding of the overall health rewards of exercise and heightened support for exercise regimens that could aid recovery from a wide range of illnesses. Furthermore, the ongoing research indicates that specialized exercise regimens may help repair damaged or aged brains (1).
Some research suggests that exercise positively affects the hippocampus. The hippocampus is vital for memory and learning. Studies with animals found that exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body's stress response (2). In a recent study, researchers found that adult mice doubled their number of new brain cells in the hippocampus when they had access to running wheels (1). The fact that the adult brain can increase its number of brain cells is amazing. It was once thought that the brain stopped producing new brain cells early in its development and that brainpower dimmed as cells died over the years. But in the past decade, researchers have found evidence that the brain continues to generate new brain cells throughout life, even in humans. Studies indicated that challenging environments, which included a number of components, such as pumped-up learning opportunities, social interactions and physical activities, were key to boosting the growth (1).
In another study, scientists found that voluntary physical activity alone was enough to trigger a boost in brain cell proliferation in rats. However, this proliferation was seen in relation to the running...