Have you felt the effects of quarantine on your body yet? Or even on your brain? Well, there is a good reason for that. Our bodies, and brains, have been trained and specialized for activity like stalking and chasing down prey. Now, not only with the quarantine but also the way we have engineered our lives to fit us and make everything easier, our lives are made sedentary and that takes a heavy toll on our bodies: For the first time in U.S. history, younger generations are expected to live shorter, unhealthier lives than their parents.
While exercise is well known to change our bodies, researchers have long suspected the same might be true of the brain. Research into this is a little more difficult though, but why has been harder to figure out?
Few studies have really looked at what’s going on in the brain while we’re moving. Only recently has technology given scientists the ability to see what is really happening in our brains as we move. Aerobic exercises seem to change both the structure of the brain and the way it operates, which together bolster learning in kids, give adults an edge on cognitive tasks, and protect against the cognitive declines that often come with age.
Brain Waves Get a Boost
Your brain becomes much more active during exercise, Helping with attention, memory, and information processing.
Using tools like an electroencephalogram (EEG), which pick up on electrical pulses, researchers have found that aerobic exercise causes a shift in the amplitude and frequency of brain waves. More beta waves, in other words, means that exercisers may be in a more alert state.
You Become More Sensitive to the World Around You
During exercise, the brain becomes much more receptive to incoming information, leading to measurable changes in vision. The visual cortex is designed to zero in on important features in the environment—the kind of features that might indicate, for example, the presence of a predator or prey—and filter out less important background noise. It’s been found that low-intensity cycling boosted this feature-selectivity ability so the brain was able to better identify specific features during exercise.
It taken a professor of psychology and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara four years to figure out how to consistently and reliably record an EEG while a subject is in motion.
Scientists have also administered cognitive tests right after exercise—for example, measuring the flicker fusion threshold (the rate at which a flashing light begins to look like it’s steadily glowing) and found the same thing: After exercise, one’s senses are heightened and thus can detect the flashing at a higher frequency than before exercise. Taken together, these findings indicate that people see more clearly and immediately after exercise. They can make finer visual distinctions; their perceptions are sharper.
The benefits of exercise to your brain may begin as soon as your heart rate begins to rise. In much the same way that your muscles demand more energy during exercise, the brain begins gobbling up glucose or other carbohydrates when the body is in motion.
It was previously unknown what the brain was doing with all this fuel, it’s been discovered that the brain uses some of that fuel to build more neurotransmitters, the chemicals that relay messages around the nervous system. The brain may be filling up its stores of essential ingredients, perhaps in order to deal with a sustained period of hunting. This process might be why exercise has been shown to alleviate depression and has been found that during activity, glutamate levels rise in the same region of the brain where stocks of the neurotransmitter have previously been found to be low in depressed patients.
Your Brain Becomes Younger
A few things happen in the exerciser’s brain that make the organ appear younger. Studies suggest that exercise sparks the production of growth factors that nourish new neurons and help existing cells survive. Budding neural cells also need more nutrients as they grow, and animal studies suggest that exercise promotes the release of other growth factors that promote blood vessel growth, which could deliver those nutrients. At least one study in humans has found that active individuals tend to have more and healthier blood vessels, or, in the words of the authors, a “younger-appearing brain.”
These structural changes in the brain generally take at least a few weeks to develop but lead to long-lasting improvements in regions of the brain associated with cognitive tasks, like working memory.
Beyond that, research shows that aging exercisers have increased gray-matter volume in regions associated with general intelligence and executive function, which encompasses everything from attention to planning to problem-solving skills. Studies also show that fit adults have healthier white-matter tracts—the superhighways that connect various regions of gray matter—in the basal ganglia, a critical region for balance and coordination.
So, Is Exercise Magic?
You shouldn’t expect to increase your IQ or anything of that nature, we’re talking about small to moderate effects, which are potentially great for improving cognition and brain health.
But we can envision a future in which doctors prescribe exercise instead of drugs. “Exercise is a potential prophylactic against some aspects of age-related cognitive decline,” Giesbrecht says. “When you think of the fact that we have an aging demographic and the high prevalence of depression, there might be simpler treatments out there, like exercise.”
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