Aerobic exercise has been shown, in numerous studies, to provide brain benefits ranging from enhanced cognitive flexibility to better memory to new cell growth. In addition, because working out floods your body and brain with the hormones that affect mood, it can have a significant effect on your mental health.
No single type of exercise is required to reap brain benefits. Study participants who walked, ran, swam, biked, and did yoga all saw some positive brain changes.
According to recent research, a cardiovascular workout can both strengthen your current neural network as well as building new brain cells.
Scientists at the Beckman Institute used mice and rats to study the effect of exercise on the brain, comparing the animals that used running wheels versus those that did not. When tested, the animals that ran regularly scored higher on cognitive tests than those that were sedentary. Scientists found that getting a workout spurred new brain cell growth in the hippocampus.
Aerobic workouts also contribute to brain health by lifting your mood and combating depression. When you run or bike, your body releases both endorphins and the hormones dopamine and serotonin, which decrease stress and improve your mood temporarily.
However, the mental effects of exercise can last longer than just the short period after your workout. Research from the Society of Neuroscience showed that rats who exercised regularly were less prone to stress than those that did not: amazingly, their brains had been “rewired” to better handle challenges.
A study at Duke University, which involved 150 participants diagnosed with depression, showed that exercise had a semi-permanent effect on patients’ mental health. Those patients who engaged in regular aerobic exercise for six months were much less likely to relapse into depressive moods and behaviour than those who were sedentary and on prescription drugs.
While there’s certainly more research to be done, it’s clear that cardiovascular exercise shows numerous brain benefits. Whether you want to shore up your memory, lift your mood, or make sure your brain stays sharp for years to come, make sure you’re taking the time to move your body every week.