Why do you exercise? Is it because you like it, or maybe ‘cause it helps you fit into your jeans, or is there a social aspect that drives your choice to exercise, or maybe you exercise because it makes you feel good? Those are all great reasons to exercise. But have you thought about exercise for good brain health? Yes, for our brain to remain flexible, it requires physical exercise.
It was originally thought that once we reached adulthood, the brain stops growing, changing or adapting and therefore, is a static organ. This could not be further from the truth. Neuroplasticity is the term reserved for the brain’s ability to change throughout our lives. The ability for the brain to remain flexible plays an important role in shaping our distinct personalities.
Brain plasticity is a physical process. Gray matter can actually shrink or thicken; neural connections can be forged and refined or weakened and severed. Changes in the physical brain manifest as changes in our abilities. Without plasticity, the brain would remain static, frozen at a particular point in time. Brain plasticity allows the brain to do everything from learn how to speak to refining physical movements such as those associated with playing a musical instrument. Every time the brain encounters information, it reworks itself to accommodate it, and creates a map of the information it contains so that it can readily retrieve information when it is needed. People always need to be able to store and interpret new information, making brain plasticity critical to function at all ages.
Numerous studies have been conducted on brain plasticity to explore the changes in cellular structure which occur in the brain over time. A number of factors appear to contribute, from hormones generated inside the body to shock therapy. One of the most effective and least compromising is exercise. Studies show that people are able to enhance the flexibility of the brain by “exercising” it, much like exercising the musculoskeletal system can be improved or modified with exercise.
The growth of new brain cells and nerves – neurogenesis – happens when the brain blood volume increases. Blood volume increases during moderate exercise. The hippocampal area of the brain, the area responsible for memory and learning, is the area primarily affected by increased blood volume. This is good news for us with aging brains where memory seems to deteriorate and learning new things like language or music also seems to be fairly challenging.
What’s good for the heart, they say, is good for the brain. So get that heart pumping to grow your brain ‘til the end of your days.