Typically, exercise is advertised as an activity to improve physical shape. However, recent studies show that the impact of exercise extends far beyond the tangible and visible.
Neuroscientist, author and New York University professor Wendy Suzuki’s 2017 TED Talk titled “The Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise” opened a dialogue between neuroscience and exercise science. Suzuki shared a combination of scientific details as well as personal anecdotes, citing the benefits of exercise in the short-term as well as long-term. For Suzuki, she noticed an increase in focus/attention, mood, and memory skills. These “feelings” better inspired Suzuki to redirect her work in memory neuroscience to exercise neuroscience.
According to Suzuki, exercise benefits include the ability to “[. . .] change the brain’s anatomy, physiology, and function.” For example, the memory improvement she noticed was not merely a stroke of luck, but new brain cells in the hippocampus that were being formed. These cells then increase the hippocampus’ volume and improve long-term memory. Perhaps the most significant fact she uncovered was that consistent exercise can produce a protective-like effect on the brain, the strengthening of the hippocampus and frontal cortex thus providing an additional layer of anatomical defense on diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
This research proves helpful not only to those affected by Alzehimer’s and/or Dementia, but to anyone dealing with the effects of aging.
According to the MAYO Clinic, “[a]lthough brain size decreases as you age, research has shown that exercise can actually help reverse that — at any age. One study found that physical activity helped participants build measurable increases in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that enables you to create and store memories.”
Research suggests that while these changes can occur at any point, it is best to start implementing exercise practices at a young age.
According to the MAYO Clinic, “[a]nother study showed that people with better cardiovascular fitness as young adults had better memory, motor skills and executive function 25 years later as middle-aged adults.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, “[s]tandard recommendations advise half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week,” in order to see a long-term improvement in memory skills.
Alongside Alzheimer’s and Dementia, exercise can prove beneficial for other degenerative illnesses as well.
A 2008 research article titled “Exercise and Brain Health – Implications for Multiple Sclerosis” analyzed the same principles that Suzuki was integrated with to see its effects on the degenerative disease Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While Suzuki alluded to diseases like MS in her TED Talk, she did not focus on the implication exercise could have on brain health in terms of the one disease in particular.
According to the article, “[r]esearch on neuromodulation, raises the possibility that regular physical activity may mediate favorable changes in disease factors and symptoms associated with MS, in part through changes in neuroactive proteins.” Multiple Sclerosis also brings an interesting perspective that Suzuki was not able to account for in her examples of Alzheimer’s and Dementia: the duality of effect on mind and body. While the typical person with Alzheimer’s and Dementia is older and has physical problems that are common old-age, MS affects the brain and body in differing amounts over a period of time until death has occurred. After being diagnosed with MS, most people continue to live for 25-35 years before the disease wins out.
This makes the field of exercise and its effects on brain health even more pertinent to those with MS because the exercise would be able to help improve both brain and bodily function to a degree, possibly decreasing the symptoms and effects of MS in both cognitive and physical manifestations. In more scientific terms, as stated in the article, “[c]onsidering that axonal loss and cerebral atrophy occur early in the disease, exercise prescription in the acute stage could promote neuroprotection, neuroregeneration and neuroplasticity and reduce long-term disability.”
The philosophy of neuroprotection, neurodegeneration and neuroplasticity is applicable to all who exercise. In simplified terms, the brain is able to produce good agents and is able to contain bad agents better through the means of exercise.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, “[e]xercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”
Additionally, exercise can help manage factors of mental distress. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “[e]xercise improves mood and sleep and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.”