Physical Exercise & the Benefits to Cognitive Health

As we transition into longer days and warmer weather, we begin to witness every aspect of nature come alive again.  For some of us, this means revisiting that New Year vision of getting healthy for the year ahead.  Specifically, increasing daily amounts of physical activity or exercise.

Unfortunately, living in the COVID-19 pandemic with ongoing stay-at-home orders and restrictions of community engagement, many of us are working/studying (check out some ergonomic tips here!) from home and seated for hours at a time in the same position staring at a screen. With a decrease in daily physical activity comes an increase in ‘brain fog’ and a loss of concentration.

Physical Exercise & Activity

Physical Exercise is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “…a subcategory of physical activity that is planned, structured, repetitive, and purposeful in the sense that the improvement or maintenance of one or more components of physical fitness is the objective” (2020).

According to WHO’s guidelines on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior, published in November 2020, 1 in 4 adults around the world do not meet the global recommended levels of physical activity, and more than 80% of the world’s youth population is inadequately physically active.

The general thought is that physical exercise was primarily for cardiovascular health and the prevention of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and several cancers. Exercise directly helps us by reducing insulin resistance and reducing inflammation in areas of the body.

Studies also showed the overwhelming benefits of physical exercise on mental health.  After a single workout, there is an immediate increase in the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, that improve overall mood and emotional regulation.

Impact of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Health

Exercise has the power to change our brain’s anatomy and physiology across our lifespan.  It has been linked to the concept of Neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to build and modify both neuronal structures and function in response to our experiences.

Simply, when you increase the intensity of physical movement or exercise, you are improving blood circulation with oxygen and nutrients in all the neural circuits that are involved in cognitive functioning.  

Research on physical exercise and its impact on the human brain show:

  • Increases in gray matter volume in the Frontal (i.e. decision making, executive functions) and Hippocampal regions (i.e. retaining information, developing memory).Physical exercise can increase one’s ability to focus attention, lasting a few hours after working out.  Additionally,

exercising produces new brain cells in the hippocampus which in turn, increase its volume.  Higher volume means greater ability to form and store long term memories (Colcombe

et al., 2006; Erickson et al., 2011)

  • Increases in levels of brain-derived neurotropic factors (BDNF) – a neurotransmitter needed for neuronal growth and subsequently learning/memory (Hötting et al., 2016).
  • Facilitates the benefits of glucose and lipid metabolism carrying ‘food’ to the brain (Mandolesi et al., 2017).
  • Increases academic achievement (especially in children) (Fernandes et al., 2017; Sibley and Etnier, 2003)
  • Prevention of cognitive decline (e.g. dementia) (Hollamby et al., 2017; Mandolesi et al., 2017)

Chang and Etnier (2009) found that moderate intensity exercise is related to increased performance in working memory and cognitive flexibility, whereas high-intensity exercise improves the speed of information processing.

Remember brain fitness is just as important as physical fitness!

Let’s Get Moving!

So, if you’re still coming out of winter hibernation, in a work-from-home slump, or simply want to get energized (i.e. wake up the body/brain), taking those physical exercise breaks (e.g. workouts, power walking around the neighborhood, vacuuming, dancing, etc.) is a key factor in transformative biological, psychological and cognitive health.  Imagine the combined sustained benefits over time!

Of course, all is dependent on several factors such as the intensity, frequency, and duration of the exercise.  And it is always recommended that you speak to a health professional for proper guidance and tailored exercises to suit your individual needs and ability.  So, get out there and get active!

–Rana Diptee