For today’s post I am very pleased to offer a guest submission from Jamie Hale, M.S. Jamie is an experimental researcher specializing in behavioral nutrition and cognitive science. He is also a science writer, blogger, exercise and nutrition consultant, outdoor enthusiast, lecturer and founder of Knowledge Summit Research Group. He has conducted primary research in the areas of attention, memory and behavioral nutrition. He’s written seven books and co-authored one.
I have been following Jamie’s writing for some time, and am very impressed with his understanding of common cognitive errors and how we can defeat them with critical thinking skills and the scientific method. In fact, his latest book is called In Evidence We Trust: The Need for Science, Rationality and Statistics.
When Jamie offered to submit an article to this blog discussing the benefits of exercise for brain health, I jumped at the chance. I have been meaning to write such an article for some time. Now I don’t have to, because Jamie has already done an excellent job. Here it is.
Exercise and The Brain
Exercise has many benefits – increased cardiovascular health, stronger bones and muscles, stronger connective tissue, and increased overall fitness and athleticism. Accumulating evidence shows that improved brain health can be added to the list (Fernandez et al., 2013).
Often, fitness professionals fail to mention that exercise benefits the brain. There are probably two primary reasons for this. First, they are not familiar with the research, which is usually conducted in the field of brain science, as opposed to exercise science. Second, the subject matter can be intimidating – the brain is arguably the most complex structure in existence. Following are some interesting findings on the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain.
Exercise improves memory and learning in humans and non-human animals. Exercising individuals might be less susceptible to loss of thinking abilities associated with aging. One of the key mechanisms for these benefits is the growth of new nerve cells in an area of the brain involved with learning and memory (Kobilo, et al., 2010). Van Pragg (2009) suggests that in addition to the growth of new nerve cells, exercise may cause: changes in brain connections, increased density in the receiving area of the nerve cell, growth of new blood vessels, and enhancement of chemical messengers and growth factors.
Mental health & neurodegenerative disorder
Randomized trials demonstrate the efficacy of aerobic or resistance training exercise (2–4 months) as a treatment for depression in both young (Nabkasorn et al., 2006) and older (Blumenthal et al., 1999) individuals. The antidepressant effect of exercise in humans has been shown to be just as potent as some medications (Babyak et al., 2000).
Research shows that exercise is beneficial for individuals with Parkinson’s. Goodwin and colleagues (2008) conducted a systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) reporting on the effectiveness of exercise interventions on various outcomes for people with PD. The results indicated that exercise was beneficial for physical function, health-related quality of life, strength, balance and gait speed.
Aerobic or anaerobic exercise?
The majority of research showing the benefits of exercise for the brain involves aerobic exercise. In one study, one hundred twenty older adults without dementia were randomly assigned to an aerobic exercise group or to a stretching & toning control group (Erikson et al., 2011). Participants in the aerobic group showed increases in brain volume in an area related to learning and memory. The participants also showed an increase in spatial memory.
Anaerobic exercise can also benefit the brain. In one study, learning performance was tested directly after a single bout of: high impact anaerobic sprints (2, 3 minute sprints separated by 2 minute rest), low impact aerobic running (40 minutes), or a period of rest in 27 healthy participants (15 minutes) (Winter et al., 2007). The high impact group improved significantly on measures of learning performance, and the low impact group showed no improvement.
Many people think of mental health as something different than physical health. However, all mental processes are generated by the brain. As stated by Sandra Chapman, without brain health, you do not have health. Like the other parts of the body, the brain benefits from exercise. It’s another great reason to keep moving.
Thanks Jamie for an excellent article!
References are available upon request.