How does exercise improve brain function?

Exercise’s ability to pump up brainpower was reinforced in a groundbreaking study where researchers discovered that increases in cardiovascular fitness actually grew brain cells in subjects. This supports previous animal studies showing that exercise activates neurogenesis (formation of nervous tissue) in parts of the brain. Scientists pinpoint the effects to a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule that fuels much of the mental activity associated with higher thought. Exercise boosts the release of this neurotransmitter, along with other beneficial brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin. Working out is essential for your cognitive health, from birth to the golden years.
Marjorie Nolan Cohn
Nutrition & Dietetics

Simple coordination based exercises not only improve your coordination but they can also improve your brain function and learning.

There are indications that major nervous system development and organization continues throughout life, although mostly this occurs in the first 5 years of life.

In the early months of life your movement is unilateral or ‘same sided’. That is, the arm and leg on the same side of the body extend and flex together to create movement, so that when your right arm moves forward so does your right leg. At about six months of age you develop a cross crawl pattern where the opposite arm and leg flex and extend together. So that when your right arm moves forward your left leg does. This cross crawl pattern is correct coordination and you will use this for the rest of your life unless it becomes impaired.

Brain exercises and physical coordination are benefits of physical activity such as coordination exercises because mind and body are connected. Certain physical coordination and occupational therapy activities support learning, especially reading fluency and comprehension.

There are several ways exercise can improve the brain. First  exercise will increase blood flow to the brain, providing the brain with essential nutrients such as glucose and oxygen.
Abnormal glucose tolerance can lead to brain impairments, and exercise helps regulate blood sugar levels.
In children, exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function, and improve motor skill development. Children who are active do better on standardized tests and have better grades. In adults, especially as we age, regular physical activity increases memory and slows the aging process of the brain. Studies show that very active people who engage regularly physical activities have much lower rates of memory loss, dementia, Alzheimer’s and do better on cognitive function tests over time.

William B. Salt II., MD
An article by Eric Nagourney in an issue of The New York Times, “Exercise: Working Out the Memory as Well as the Muscles,” describes a study conducted at the Columbia University Medical Center, which was led by neurologist, Dr. Scott A. Small. The study shows how exercise may stimulate growth of neurons in a part of the brain associated with memory loss. Researchers looked at changes in the brains of volunteers who worked out on exercise equipment to compare the findings with earlier research involving mice. Using an MRI and treadmills, the scientists were able to see whether blood flow increased to the same part of the brain in humans as it had in mice. It did, suggesting working out may help produce neurons in a part of the brain that loses them disproportionately as people age. The researchers also found as the volunteers went through a three-month exercise period, their scores on memory tests went up. “Our study does suggest that it’s probably aerobic exercise that’s inducing this effect,” Dr. Small said.

An issue of Newsweek includes several articles entitled "Health for Life: Exercise and the Brain.” The lead article by Mary Carmichael is titled “Stronger, Faster, Smarter.” She reports the exercising process begins in the muscles, where contractions release a chemical messenger protein called IGF-1 that travels through the bloodstream and into the brain. “There, IGF-1 takes on the role of foreman in the body’s neurotransmitter factory. It issues orders to ramp up production of several chemicals, including one called brain-derived neurotrophic factor,
or BDNF.” It refuels the mind/brain.

Harvard psychiatrist, John J. Ratey, M.D., is the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He calls the BDNF molecule “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” It fuels most of the activities that lead to higher thought. With regular exercise, the body builds up levels of BDNF, which results in the branching out of brain neurons and the creation of new interconnections among them. Consequently, neurons communicate with one another in new ways. This process underlies ongoing learning: changes in the synapses between neurons are involved in storing new facts and making them available for future use. BDNF makes the process possible and brains with more of it have a greater capacity for knowledge. You see exercise underlies neuroplasticity and improves mind/brain function.
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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.