Exercise And Brain Functions

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exercise and brain

Exercise and brain functions are deeply interlinked. Let us examine the impact of exercise on brain functions. Whenever we talk about exercise, attention is usually on the heart, lungs, and skeletomuscular system. However as it turns out, the brain is very active even in a single bout of exercise. This includes enhanced neuro-electrical activity as well as increased brain blood flow. We still have a lot to learn about the impact of exercise on the brain, we will bring out four major areas of brain research.

The implications for these adaptations are immense as they help maintain or improve cognitive functioning, reduce age-related dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, symptoms for Parkinson’s disease, lessen the severity of depression and anxiety, and reduce the negative effects of chronic stress.

Achieving Healthy Brain

Major factors contributing to maintaining a healthy brain, the primary components are

Exercise has the potential to influence all the above-mentioned factors. Exercise activates various regions in the brain. This includes the pre-frontal and motor cortex, hypothalamus, hippocampus, and frontal lobe.

Even a light single bout of exercise stimulates neuro-electrical activity in the brain. Further, blood flow to the brain during exercise can increase as much as 20%. As vascular degeneration in the brain is a common cause of dementia and eventual Alzheimer’s disease, the ability to maintain brain blood flow is of critical importance. As such exercise plays a key role in cognitive functions and reduction of dementia.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Dementia can be defined as the loss of mental function in two or more areas such as language, visual and special abilities, memory, reasoning, or judgment.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain, begins gradually, and progresses at a variable rate over time. The disease results in impaired memory, thinking, and behaviors. It can last from 3 to 20 years from the time of onset of symptoms.
According to the world disease control data, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth most common cause of death.

The major non-modifiable risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease are age greater than 65, family history, ethnicity, and gender. Among the modifiable risk factors, it is interesting to know that regular exercise not only lowers the risk of Alzheimer’s disease but other diseases too.

Modifiable risk factors are:

Medical science has not fully understood the mechanism through which exercise can help improve brain functions and have protective effects.

Exercise can reduce several of the modifiable risk factors such as reducing chronic stress on the brain. Exercise improves blood flow and Glucagon-like peptide 1 which reduces Beta Amyloid which mostly is the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.

Parkinson’s Disease

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that progresses slowly in patients. The brain slowly stops producing a neurotransmitter called Dopamine. As a result, a person has less ability to regulate muscle movements and body coordination. Symptoms include slowness of the movement, involuntary shaking or tremors at rest, or stiffness of arms, legs, or trunk. We can associate Parkinson’s disease with difficulty to balance and the frequency of falls.

Medical science may still be trying to find out the actual mechanism by which exercise helps delay or stop the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Exercise may strengthen and improve motor circuitry through a mechanism that includes increasing synaptic strength resulting from raised dopamine neuro-transmission. Exercise also leads to the expression of neurotrophic factors, increased brain blood flow, and increase neurogenesis which is the formation of new brain neurons.

Depression and Chronic Stress

Exercise can alleviate the symptoms associated with depression. Worldwide 350 million people suffer from depression and the numbers are increasing every day. Common symptoms include depressed mood and feelings of sadness, fatigue, sleep disruption, changes in appetite and body weight, reduced interest in life events, helplessness, and suicide.

Major risk factors include following

  • Female gender
  • Family History
  • Physical Inactivity
  • Chronic health condition
  • Stress
  • Social Isolation

Research has repeatedly confirmed the anti-depressant effects of exercise. The greater a person is involved in an exercise, the less he/she is prone to clinical depression. In a study program, both men and women were given just two sessions of aerobic exercises per week for 12 weeks. It is observed that such physical activity dramatically reduced tension and depression scores.
In another study, a group suffering from depression was divided into two. Half were given anti-depressant drugs and the other half were given 45min of aerobic and other physical activity under supervision.
Improvement among the sub-group being given exercise was more than 50% as compared to the other sub-group. Surprisingly once sub-group on anti-depressant medicines were allowed to join the exercise group, over 80% joined the exercise group.
In addition to the biochemical of change in the brain a feeling of empowerment and self-confidence were suggested as reasons for the anti-depressant effects of exercise. Stress-reducing effects of exercise further add to good treatment results. Physical activity can significantly lower the negative effects that chronic stress can have on the body, thereby imparting some degree of stress resistance.


Regular exercise is an excellent medicine for the prevention and treatment of many brain disorders including dementia, Parkinson’s disease. Alzheimer’s, depression, and chronic stress.

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