What a workout does to your brain (and why difficult exercises make your brain grow)

Posted by Jeremey DuVall

I distinctly remember the sunrises during my senior year of high school. While my classmates were sleeping, I was on the roads racking up miles with my cross country team to avoid the Florida heat. We would hit the showers then shuffle off to class. At the time, I thought this was absolute torture. Getting up early in the morning was bad enough, but exercising on top of that?

That type of activity wouldn’t be anything new at Naperville High School in Naperville, IL. The school was profiled in the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain. Naperville encourages students to attend physical education classes and offers early morning options so they can get a workout in before the first bell. As one would expect, the students have a lower obesity rate, but they’re also seeing benefits in the classroom.

To improve mental performance, many individuals, resort to hard work and repetition. In turns out, they might be missing out on one of the most powerful brain boosters in the world – exercise.

More Movement, More Brain Cells

In order for learning to occur, an electrical signal must travel down a neuron and cross a small space known as a synapse to connect with the receiving end of another neuron. This entire process is regulated by three main neurotransmitters, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. While their roles vary, the key aspect is that having too many of one or not enough of another would wreak chaos. That’s one area where the students at Naperville High School are getting things right. Exercise helps to balance neurotransmitters creating the best environment for learning.

In the 1990’s scientists learned that exercise might do much more than just balance chemicals. Enter BDNF, or Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor. Referred to as Miracle Gro for the brain, it plays three main roles in learning:

  1. It increases structural growth and helps to create new neurons.
  2. It increases the affinity and signal strength between neurons helping to encourage learning.
  3. It helps to strengthen neurons and prevent cell damage, important for diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Scientists immediately recognized the importance of BDNF. But, they had no idea how it was affected by exercise. That is, until they tossed some rodents on a treadmill and then dissected their brain after activity. Some poking and prodding revealed two major discoveries. The mice showed improvements in the hippocampus, a brain region responsible for creating long-term memories, and increases in BDNF.

Increases in BDNF went a long way to prove the importance of exercise. Unfortunately, we know that running on a treadmill won’t directly increase your intelligence. To learn, we need to stimulate those neurons and give them something to remember. In turns out, exercise has a role to play in that as well.

A Case for Difficult Exercises

Whenever I walk into the gym and see someone doing some funky single-leg squat to curl to overhead press combo, I chuckle a bit. I can barely put one foot in front of the other let alone piece together sixteen complicated movements into one exercise. It turns out, those adventurous exercisers might be the one with the final laugh.

Our neurons aren’t born with a specific function. New neurons only have a short time to find a job in the brain before they die. To solidify their place in your head, neurons must fire their axon, meaning they must be used in some capacity in the brain.

Here’s where exercise comes in handy.

While you may be just doing a routine exercise, the brain is busy processing an incredible amount of incoming data. This processing puts fledgling neurons to work, helping them to become active members of your brain. Complex activities challenge your brain even further by requiring it to learn a new skill.

Think of it this way: when your body moves in a routine pattern like running or biking, your brain doesn’t have to think that hard. But, when you have to coordinate squatting and curling and pressing all in one move (or snatch a barbell like shown below), your brain has to get busy. Novel movements and challenges force the brain to work overtime. For example, when volunteers were asked to juggle everyday for three months, they showed tremendous brain growth. The acquisition of the new skill encouraged their brain to involve new neurons.

Olympic Snatch

This isn’t to say you should ditch the bench press for the most complicated exercise you can fabricate. It’s important to consider both aerobic exercise and movement that challenges your coordination. There’s no magic recipe or blend. Pick an activity you enjoy and do it regularly. When you need to change up your routine or feel like your creativity is waning, try something you’ve never done before. Head to Zumba and dance your way to better brain health (at least that’s what you’ll tell everyone).

How and When to Use Exercise to Boost Brain Health

If exercise is so good for the brain, then riding a bike while reading must be the magic combination right? Unfortunately, it turns out exercising while trying to learn won’t turn you into a memory magician. During exercise, your body diverts blood away from your brain to the working muscles. This leaves you in a less than optimal state for learning.

If exercising while you’re trying to learn isn’t the ticket, when should you exercise for the best boost in brain power? I’ve compiled a few examples based on my research.

Before a big creative meeting

If you have a brainstorming session coming up, you may want to take a quick jog beforehand. The movement will help to keep you alert as well as balance brain hormones paving the way for clear, unique thoughts.

Early in the day

Although you might not be a morning person, a quick run before heading into work can do wonders for your day. First, it offers the obvious benefits of getting you up and moving sans coffee. Second, working out can offer a piece of calm before a hectic day. Third, getting your blood pumping early in the morning increases brain activity through the first part of the day. Like the Naperville students that exercise before school, your brain will be more prepped for intaking information.

Brain activity after exercise

When you’re stressed

Before a test in college, I would skip my normal workout in favor of extra book time. While I thought ditching the workout was doing myself a favor, it likely was a detriment to my success.Our bodies aren’t good at deciding between good stress (winning the lottery) and bad stress (wrecking your car). Both situations trigger the same response, known as “fight or flight”. The body releases hormones and chemicals designed to get you moving (think “running away from a tiger”). Exercising helps to calm the mind and relieve the body by working through the “fight or flight” response.

Every day

It sounds like common sense, but exercise might be your best ticket to a healthy brain down the road. In 1993, researchers looked at over 4,000 older men and women. They were hoping to identify common lifestyle factors among high-functioning older adults. Not surprisingly, the high-functioning adults were much more likely to engage in physical activity. This ties back to the information we’ve discussed above. Exercise helps the brain to produce more neurons and protect existing neurons against damage. Exercise also helps to challenge brain cells in new ways, the perfect kind of challenge to keep the mind sharp. Putting these two factors together creates the perfect blend for mental aptitude later in life.

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Most of us view exercise as just a beneficial activity to maintain a slim figure. But, the benefits of movement extend far beyond physical health affecting both emotional and mental health as well. Next time you’re stressed or hitting a creative road block, take an hour to get your blood flowing. The increase in activity will take your mind off of work and rejuvenate you mentally so you’re more productive when you return to the office.

Image credits: jacsonquerubin, The Training Geek

Jeremey is a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, former personal trainer, and writer focused on the intersection between health, productivity, and happiness.

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