Around the Island

Fit Island: This is your brain on exercise

COURTESY PHOTO | Maggie Davis leading a fitness class in the park.
COURTESY PHOTO | Maggie Davis leading a fitness class in the park.

Traditionally, we think of exercise as something we do to improve our cardiovascular health, strengthen our muscles and maybe help us shed a few pounds. Although all of these are just a few of the many life-extending benefits of exercise, some of the most important and recently discovered benefits are for the brain. I’ve often contended that if employers knew about the increased productivity associated with exercise not only would they provide the time and space for fitness — they would mandate it. And if schools were aware of the improved memories, problem solving skills and test scores of students who participate in fitness classes, there would be fewer cuts to school gym programs. 

For many years it was believed by the medical establishment that we had a finite number of brain cells and we pretty much wrote off all those ones that died during the party days of our youth. But more recent science has proven we can continue to grow new brain cells even as we age. This is known as neurogenesis — and exercise, along with quality sleep, a healthy diet and intellectual challenges, helps promote neurogenesis and prevent cognitive decline.

Brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is a protein produced in the brain and sometimes referred to as “Miracle-Gro” for neurons. The production of BDNF appears to be stimulated by several factors including aerobic exercise, which leads to the activation of signaling pathways that result in enhanced learning and memory formation.

It’s theorized there was an evolutionary benefit to increased production of BDNF during bouts of intense activity. If you were a cave dweller running from a saber tooth tiger, being able to quickly figure out your best escape route and (just as important) how to avoid the tiger in the future would obviously be very beneficial for your survival.

In our modern world, low levels of BDNF have been linked to: Alzheimer’s disease, accelerated aging, poor neural development, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression, and even schizophrenia.

Preliminary studies have come up with a few brain-healthy exercise recommendations that appear to boost BDNF. For starters, do something you enjoy; research suggests that activity done voluntarily is more beneficial. Do something daily; regular exercise seems to enhance the ability of the brain to produce BDNF. Do something outside your comfort zone; things that feel a little bit “risky” (for instance paddle boarding if you’ve never done it) will challenge the brain more than the same old treadmill workout. Do something that requires complex motor skills, such as dancing, tennis or balance challenges. Add sprints to your workouts. Mix some intervals of higher intensity into cardio workouts. Play some tunes; music is known to stimulate the brain and it’s believed to have a particularly positive effect when combined with movement. Include social interactions and exercise outdoors; friends and fresh air are good for the brain and the soul.

Of course you should consult your doctor to make sure you are healthy enough to take on new exercise challenges and don’t tackle something beyond your current skill level without proper instruction.

I don’t think there’s much better motivation to get moving than knowing you’re keeping your mental muscles strong.