The Physical Health-Brain Health Connection – How Physical Activity Benefits Our Minds

A person standing atop a mountain lifting a barbell with enlarged brains

With people living longer lives, increasing interest regarding brain health is growing. Conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss are associated with an aging brain. Thus, many people are seeking ways to prevent memory decline and to boost their cognitive performance. Certainly, the foods we eat and the lifestyle we lead makes a difference to some extent as do genetics. But research is increasingly showing that exercise and brain health are tightly linked. In fact, there now appears to be a number of ways that physical activity benefits our mental wellness.

In considering exercise and brain health, a variety of things might be considered. For instance, optimal brain health pertains to our ability to remember details and solve difficult tasks. Likewise, good cognitive performance also includes the ability to learn new information. And it also involves mental health areas such as those related to mood and emotional control. In each of these areas, physical activity benefits our well-being. And each deserves exploring in greater detail based on the latest research information available.

A mom and a kid meditating
The link between exercise and brain health is now backed by science – so now you can get in shape and get smarter!

Muscle Exercise and Brain Health

Naturally, when we exercise, we work our muscles to a significant extent. In performing endurance events like marathon running, we engage one type of muscle. When we choose to participate in strength training with weights, we activate another type. But as it turns out, both forms of exercise offer advantages cognitively. These physical activity benefits not only improve our thinking abilities, but they actually stimulate brain growth. Whether your jogging or doing squats, you’re actually helping your brain perform better.

Researchers are finding that exercise and brain health are linked through chemicals that our muscles produce. During both endurance and strength types of exercise, muscle release tiny substances that affect our brains. These include substances called myokines as well as other metabolites like lactate. Once released, these chemical cross into the brain and trigger growth of our brain cells. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, is believed to be among the most important. This is a major way that physical activity benefits our cognitive health.

Better Circulation Means Better Brain Health

In addition to direct muscle effects, physical activity benefits our brains through circulation effects as well. It’s not surprising that our hearts pump faster and harder when we exercise. But the impact this has on our brains may not be appreciated. When circulation improves, more oxygen gets to our brains, and waste products are better cleared. But similarly, enhanced circulation also stimulates other organs to promote cognitive wellness also. This is another way that exercise and brain health are linked.

Some research now supports that brain capillaries release various hormones and other chemicals when we exercise. Some may originate within capillary cells themselves. But more likely, these chemicals are produced in other organs of the body. For example, the liver produces a protein called GLPD1 in higher amounts when we exercise. Experiments that have injected GLPD1 into older mice showed that their brain performance greatly improved. Memory, learning, and even new neuron development all occurred when these mice were exposed to this chemical. The researchers concluded that this could be an important way that physical activity boosts our cognitive performance.

Physical Activity and Genetics

For a long time, people believed that the genes you inherited were fixed. In other words, if you had a genetic risk for a condition, there was nothing that could be done. It is now clear that this is not necessarily the case. Studies now show that what we eat and the way we live can actually alter our genes. The changes are called epigenetic modifications, and they can actually be passed along to future generations. It is now also believed that this may be another way how exercise and brain health are connected.

It is well-recognized that physical activity benefits the brain in several disease states. In addition, research now suggests that staying physically and mentally active can deter conditions like dementia. While chemicals and capillary circulation likely account for some protections, epigenetic modifications may also be important. In fact, these chemicals and capillary effects may actually induce positive genetic changes. This could then reduce inherited risks of developing brain diseases. And it would make it less likely to pass it along to your children and grandchildren.

Exercise and Mental Health

While memory, learning, and problem-solving are notable indicators of brain health, mental wellness is also. Mental health relates more to our emotional and behavioral aspects of the brain. But here too, physical activity benefits our well-being by reducing the occurrence of mental health conditions. The link between exercise and brain health is therefore more than clear thinking and a good memory. A strong connection between exercise and a healthy emotional state also exists.

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In this regard, physical activity benefits mental wellness through a number of mechanisms. When we are under stress, our risk for depression and anxiety increases. However, exercise reduces these stress effects through chemical and immune system effects. Physical activity benefits our emotional state as well making us calmer and more relaxed. Research has suggested that a single bout of intense anger can increase our risk of stroke significantly. And exercise also is known to have inherent anti-depressant effects even in the absence of stress. Evidence thus strongly supports an association between exercise and brain health as it relates to mental wellness also.

Exercise…It’s Not Just for Physical Wellness Anymore!

Physical exercise offers many benefits when it comes to overall health and wellness. Exercise is known to enhance cardiovascular wellness. It also improves muscle and bone health while also allowing all organ systems to function at a higher level. But physical activity benefits our brains also. Through a variety of mechanisms, exercise and brain health are intimately connected. Thus, it’s important to invest in exercise to promote both physical wellness and brain health concurrently. Not only will you achieve greater physical fitness, but you’ll enjoy enhanced mental fitness as well.

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