It’s been well documented that the benefits of an active lifestyle include a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some forms of cancer. Recent studies have now demonstrated that the benefits of exercise also include the central nervous system. It was a long held belief that the neurons in the brain were finite and degenerated over time, but research has shown the exercise is responsible for neurogenesis; the development of new brain cells.

This process can help the brain in the following ways:
  Enhanced cognitive function
  Delayed on-set of neurodegenerative diseases
  Counteracting dementia
  Enhanced recovery from brain injury
  Reduction in the symptoms of depression

Research undertaken at the University of Columbia used MRI scans to identify that exercise increases cerebral blood volume, which is directly responsible for new cell growth in the hippocampus; the part of the brain that facilitates memory formation and spatial and contextual learning.

exercise and the brain

The study also has direct implications in potentially managing the ageing process. As we grow older the brain, including the hippocampus, shrinks. People suffering with Alzheimer’s have been shown to have a smaller hippocampus. Neurogenesis can therefore play a role in delaying the on-set of age-related neurological diseases, including dementia.

In adults it may play a role in regulating mood, acting as a natural anti-depressant. As these new neurons are continually produced as a product of aerobic exercise they form new connections within the brain, therefore functioning with greater efficiency.

Making your brain ‘fitter’

It’s not just neurogenesis that is causing excitement in the world of exercise physiology and neurology. Scientists at the University of South Carolina recently discovered a correlation whereby exercise results in increased energy supply to the brain, allowing it to work faster and more efficiently. Just as exercise increases the amount of mitochondria (a cell’s powerhouse, converting energy into useable forms) within the muscles making them more resistant to fatigue, they discovered the same is true in the brain. The higher the mitochondrial density within a cell, the greater its ability to perform to its full potential.

Naturally as we age, neurons will have depleted levels of mitochondria. Having a larger number of mitochondria available has the potential to reduce the risk of developing age-related degenerative neurological conditions, as with neurogenesis.

Some researchers have suggested that as a consequence of adaptation to exercise, as with muscle that has a higher density of mitochondria and is more resistant to fatigue, the same outcome could be seen in brain cells. This would allow us to optimise mental performance for more sustained periods of time.

Keep it up!

An active lifestyle should be maintained in order to see the benefits of neurogenesis and an increased density of mictochondria in the brain. These processes can only be sustained if activity remains a part of your lifestyle. As with the majority of biological process, it is an on-going cycle of growth and replenishment.

© Hillcliff Personal Training 2012
Hillcliffexercise and the brain