MAXIM’s resident Clinical Nutritionist, BROOKE BENSON CAMPBELL (BHSC Nut Med), explains why exercise is the key to a healthy brain…
There are plenty of reasons to be physically active – losing weight, lowering blood pressure, decreasing the odds of developing heart disease and diabetes, lowering the incidence of stroke… the list goes on. However, new research suggests that exercise isn’t all about your body. In fact, scientists believe that the real reason we, as humans, are primed to exercise is to support brain health, meaning that the benefits of physical activity are more than just muscle-deep.
And it’s not just modern science that is convinced. Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Nikola Tesla – all celebrated figures of evolutionary and industrial development, and all known for their extraordinary brain power AND addiction to exercise. Einstein’s daily 5km walk was an essential part of his daily regime, Darwin allowed for three 45-minute walks throughout the day to enhance brain function and creativity, while Tesla reportedly performed nightly foot exercises with the goal of improving brain function, and walked up to 16km per day. He was even reported to perform daily exercises in the bath to capitalise on every opportunity for movement. And while a daily synchronised swimming bathroom regime may not be an option, the takeaway is clear. To change your brain, move your body.
Hunting, running, foraging and climbing – humans evolved to move and those movements encouraged brain growth that gradually separated us from other animals. But how did this happen? How did the brain transform and mature to develop creativity, emotional intelligence and heightened memory? New research has shown that physical activity stresses our brains in the same way that it stresses our muscles. Like active muscle fibres, neurons of the brain break down then recover to become stronger and more resilient with exercise, making physical activity the key to improved performance.
So how does physical activity boost brainpower? It…
- BOOSTS MEMORY RETENTION AND LEARNING CAPACITY
In a study performed at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart pumping and sweat glands flowing) appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in memory and recall. Many studies have supported this claim, suggesting that people who exercise have a larger pre-frontal cortex and medial temporal cortex (parts of the brain that control thinking and learning).
A study published in Brain and Cognition found that after just 30 minutes of completing an easy 30-minute bike ride, subjects completed a cognitive skills test faster than they did before exercising, and just as accurately. This effect lasted for nearly 60 minutes post-activity.
The brain literally grows each time you lace up your Nikes and pound the pavement. In fact, German researchers showed that walking or cycling during, but not before, learning helped new foreign language vocabulary to stick, so bringing your work to the treadmill may be the answer.
If this sounds too hard, another German study found that just 10 minutes of playful coordination skill (like bouncing two balls at the same time) improved attention span in a large group of teenagers for four hours post-activity. An argument for the office hand-ball tournament.
Interestingly, different types of physical activity appear to enhance different areas of memory. Liu-Ambrose compared the effects of walking versus weight-training in brain enhancement for one hour twice a week over a six-month period. While both groups improved their spatial memory (in charge of things like where you left that pesky piece of paper on your paper-filled desk), those who walked also saw improvements in episodic memory (the ability to recall an event or episode in your life). In contrast, people who lifted weights saw greater gains in associative memory (remembering a name when you see a familiar face) while a stretching group saw no memory gains.
Another experiment in 2007 showed that cognitive flexibility and learning improves after just one 35 minute treadmill session at between 60-70% of maximum heart rate. Cognitive flexibility allows us to shift thinking and switch between topics, and the trait correlates with high performance, so if you have an afternoon pitch to perfect, a lunchtime run could be a smart idea.
Physical activity also spurs other hormones into action. Insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), vascular endothelial growth factor, and fibroblast growth factor all push through the velvet rope of the blood-brain-barrier, to enhance neurotrophin survival. These proteins that aid neuron survival and function are essential to greater brain plasticity – the capacity of the brain to grow and change. As stated by John Ratey MD, author of ‘Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain’, we want our brains to be “more Play-Doh than porcelain”, and physical activity is the thing that makes this possible.
- INCREASES ALERTNESS AND PERCEPTION
The brain is the centre of all communication. It contains around 100 billion neurons that talk to each other to govern every thought and action, and studies show that our neurons talk more effectively when we’re exercising than when we’re doing anything else. In short: our brain becomes more active when we’re active. Brainwaves start with basketball.
Physical activity turns on the switch that controls arousal and attention – the executive functioning area – so that we’re all set to participate in the world around us. Neurotransmitter synthesis is also boosted by exercise – norepinephrine to kick start focus, motivation and determination; serotonin to influence mood, impulsivity and aggression; and dopamine to control our sense of contentment and reward: all essential to improved cognition and healthy ambition.
Furthermore, during exercise the brain becomes much more receptive to incoming information, leading to measurable changes in vision. People see more clearly and register both emotional cues and physical shapes more rapidly post-activity, and with this increase in processing comes better decision-making and social perception. However, the intensity of your workout makes a difference too. A study in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory found that people learned vocabulary words with 20% greater ease, focus and attention after intense exercise than after low-activity exercise. Those who did more demanding exercise had a bigger spike in their brain’s level of dopamine and epinephrine afterwards. In contrast, a study by University of Illinois researchers put people who did a 20-minute session of yoga against others who walked or jogged on a treadmill, and found that the yoga group was speedier and more accurate on tests of information recall and mental flexibility, improving markers of focus and attention.
In short, regardless of exercise type, the more you challenge your body, the more you focus your brain.
- IMPROVES MOVEMENT AND CO-ORDINATION
Exercise stimulates the cerebellum – the part of the brain that works to coordinate the body’s motor movements. If it has to do with movement of arms, legs or torso, the cerebellum is in charge: perfecting a plié, bracing for a tackle or swinging a cricket bat are all governed by this area. Exercise that requires coordination activates the cerebellum and enhances cognitive ability and processing speed. The cerebellum is also linked to the prefrontal cortex, where judgment and decision-making occur. That means participating in physical activities that require coordination can make you smarter and improve self-control. Aerobic exercise that increases heart rate also increases blood flow and boosts oxygen to the brain, providing fuel for the cerebellum. This results in a greater capacity for coordination, balance and dexterity within the body and reserved brainpower than can be utilised for other cognitive challenges.
Researchers at the University of Florida put people through dynamic exercises such as walking on a balance beam, navigating around objects, climbing poles and carrying awkwardly weighted objects, then tested the cognitive effects of activity. After exercise involving balance and coordination, participants working memory increased by an average of 50%, which is believed to be a direct result of adaptation to challenges of exercise. However, any exercise is good exercise when it comes to cognition. A recent study from the International Journal of Workplace Health Management found that people who exercised during their workday were 23% more productive on those days than they were when they didn’t exercise. So for an instant performance boost, try powerlifting.
- INTENSIFIES CREATIVITY AND IMAGINATION
The hippocampus – an area of the brain that lights up with electrical activity during exercise – also works to stimulate the imagination and encourages thoughts of future plans, far-distant possibilities and opportunistic ideas. Fuelled by football, fencing and field hockey, the hippocampus is the root of creative and inspirational thinking – something that garners significant attention in the modern world of advertising, marketing and entrepreneurship – and exercise is the key to enhancing its function. We know that exercise, especially aerobic workouts like running, stimulates something called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which encourages the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, author of “Happy Brain, Happy Life”, believes that this growth in the hippocampus is essential for creativity too.
Thoreau, Nietzsche and many other creative types relied on walking to enhance imagination. Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple was known for his walking meetings, as is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Now science may be able to provide an explanation for why this could be the key to creative brain growth. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology divided 176 college students and adults into two groups, one of which walked while taking a creativity test, while the other remained sedentary. In impressive results, those people that were physically active through the test scored 81% higher in rates of creative thinking – an encouraging reason to take a walking meeting rather than a desk-bound discussion. Interestingly, similar studies found that a person walking indoors – on a treadmill in a room facing a blank wall – or walking outdoors in the fresh air produced twice as many creative responses compared to a person sitting down. Movement, rather than environment, is the key.
- ENCOURAGES MOOD STABILITY
Scientists have been encouraging exercise as treatment for depression and anxiety-related disorders for years, but recent evidence points to the mechanism of action behind this recommendation. A 2010 study put participants through eight weeks of daily yoga and meditation practice. Supporting self-reported stress reduction, brain scans showed shrinkage of part of the amydala, a deep-brain structure strongly implicated in processing stress, fear and anxiety. A smaller amydala means lower rates of concern and worry, and a heightened state of calm, allowing us to concentrate on tasks at hand, rather than those we are stressed about. Athletics puts a lid on anxiety.
Current research has explored the mood-exercise connection through a series of clinical studies. In one study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, sedentary adults with major depressive disorder were assigned to one of four groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy or a placebo pill. After four months of treatment, patients in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher rates of remission that the placebo group. Exercise, it was concluded, was generally comparable to antidepressants for patients with major depressive disorder. A follow-up study one year later also found that subjects who reported regular exercise had lower depression scores than their less active counterparts. Exercise is important not only for mood transformation, but also relapse prevention. Some researchers believe that physical activity alleviates chronic depression by increasing serotonin (our happy mood-stabilising neurotransmitter) or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (which supports growth of neurons). Another theory explains that exercise helps by normalising sleep, which is known to be protective to the brain. Work in animal studies beginning in the late 1980s also found that exercise increases concentration of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body’s stress response. Regardless of action, a person’s response to stress (both mental and physical) is moderated by activity.
- PROTECTS OUR MOST IMPORTANT ORGAN
Exercise not only makes our brains stronger and more resilient, it also protects them against future environmental assault. Physical activity prompts the brain to create enzymes that consume (or ‘eat-up’) any existing amyloid beta-protein plaque that overpowers and strangles healthy neurons. This plaque is implicated as the cause of dementia symptoms and a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Physical activity also boosts executive function, an important collection of abilities that help us plan ahead, reason, and solve complex problems. Unfortunately, along with hormones, executive function hits a peak at a certain age and then begins to decline. However, neuropsychologist Yaakov Stern PhD, the lead author of a research paper published in Jan 2019, found that exercise seemed to slow that natural decline in executive function. Interestingly, he also found that aerobic exercise could improve executive function in participants as young as 20 years of age, which could then protect against decline in later life. A win-win for body AND brain. One question remains: what exercise is best?
Author and psychiatrist John Ratey MD recommends movements that simultaneously work your cardiovascular system and your brain – tennis, karate, ice-skating, dance, Bikram yoga. Regardless of activity, the rule remains the same: ‘Complex movement results in complex brain growth’. Any motor skill requiring a mixture of balance, coordination and aerobic activity is effective at boosting brainpower, cognition and performance. As for how much exercise you need to stay focused and sharp? One small but significant Japanese study found that jogging for 30 minutes just two or three times per week for twelve weeks improved executive function and brain performance. So lace up those trainers, because genius IS just a few steps away.
THREE WAYS TO BOOST BRAINPOWER
* EAT FOR BRAIN HEALTH: A high-protein, low-carb diet keeps your blood sugar stable and prevents chronic inflammation (linked to many mental health issues like depression). Omega 3 acids in fatty fish like salmon and mackerel have been shown to stimulate brain cell growth and cognitive ability and protect against Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia symptoms. Organic eggs are an essential brain food, and contain choline, the precursor to acetylcholine and neurotransmitter synthesis, and for those struggling with memory loss- flavonoids found in berries have been shown to improve recall and delay memory decline.
* SUPPLEMENT WISELY: Curcumin, the active anti-inflammatory component of the spice turmeric, is essential for brain performance. It is a potent antioxidant that easily crosses the blood-brain-barrier to protect brain cells from free radical damage. It increases blood flow to the brain and boosts the levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that stimulates creation of new brain cells, and impressively, studies have found that one dose of curcumin significantly improved attention and working memory while encouraging brain plasticity.
* MEDITATE MINDFULLY: Practising mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes a day has been shown to improve concentration and the ability to process information. Meditation has also been shown to improve your working memory capacity. It even changes the brain’s structure by making the cortex thicker and denser, which may be particularly important for memory maintenance as we age. In 2011, researchers at Harvard found that mindfulness meditation also increases areas of the brain that play a role in emotional regulation and self-referential processing, while decreasing brain cell volume in the amygdala, the area responsible for fear, anxiety and stress.
Brooke Benson Campbell (BHSc) is a Clinical Nutritionist and Naturopath, speaker, writer and presenter with a passion for all things health, beauty and wellbeing. A self-proclaimed human test subject, she is constantly trialing the newest products, seeking the latest discoveries and reading the current clinical studies, in order to share her findings with the public through private practice, social media and industry education.
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