Don't just exercise to keep fit, exercise because your brain needs it. Ever wondered why that playful kid remembers almost everything instead of the other way round? While it is important to exercise for your heart, lungs and muscles, it is also important to keep your brain fit. The Chinese understand this; one of the reason they allow students exercise after 2 hours of class work. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental
sharpness. The human brain evolved under conditions of almost constant motion. From this,
one might predict that the optimal environment for processing information would include motion.
Regular exercise is very important to the body.
Researchers studied two elderly populations that had led different lifestyles, one sedentary and one active. Cognitive scores were profoundly influenced. Exercise positively affected executive function, spatial tasks, reaction times and quantitative skills.
So researchers asked: If the sedentary populations become active, will their cognitive scores go up? Yes, it turns out, if the exercise is aerobic. In four months, executive functions vastly improve; longer, and memory scores improve as well.
Exercise improves cognition for two reasons:
1. Exercise increases oxygen flow into the brain, which reduces brain-bound free radicals. One of the most interesting findings of the past few decades is that an increase in oxygen is always accompanied by an uptick in mental sharpness.
2. Exercise acts directly on the molecular machinery of the brain itself. It increases neurons’ creation, survival, and resistance to damage and stress.
We might believe that the best way to improve grades at school is to spend more time studying, even at the cost of physical activity.
According to research however, we might be wrong. In fact, girls and boys with high level of cardiovascular fitness do better in subjects such as English, science and maths than those less active. A healthy set of heart and lungs appear to have more influence on grades than factors such as self-esteem, parents’ income, weight at birth, prenatal smoking and your subjective academic ability.
Here's a picture of what happens in the brain when we exercise.
This includes abilities like selecting, planning and coordinating actions, as well as ignoring distractions and managing several pieces of information at once allowing inhibition and flexible thinking. The cognitive control involved is supported by the frontal parts of the brain, which continue to develop well into our twenties. Furthermore, compared to their sedentary peers, physically active adolescents also show better memory – a function supported by the temporal region of the brain (behind the temples).
What might be more important for those of us well past our adolescent years is that exercise helps to maintain mental abilities in old age. Physical fitness at midlife reduces the risk of dementia, and in those with dementia physical activity can attenuate its progress. This is because physically active seniors tend to have larger volumes of the brain in areas that typically shrink in dementia, such as the hippocampus.
How exactly can sport increase our academic performance and thinking power?
One way is by reducing children’s disrupting behavior and increasing their ability to attend to the task in class. Also physical activity goes in hand with better brain structure, with a larger volume of some areas. Such beneficial effect of exercise on the brain could be related to the change in the levels of the substances that stimulate the growth of brain cells. It seems that when sedentary people undertake exercise, they produce more of these growth factors immediately following activity.
In those, however, who exercise regularly, the mechanism might be slightly different. Instead of producing more of the growth substance, the brain becomes more sensitive to it. Related to thinking prowess, exercising can also make us feel more lively and energetic, allowing us to think better. This is because physical activity enhances levels of certain chemical messengers in the brain, e.g. acetylcholine. These messengers activate areas of the brain supporting cognition, emotion and arousal. Finally, in older adults exercise seems to help to recruit compensatory brain areas, which help in completing the tasks.
How much should we exercise then and what sort of exercise would be best?
Opinions are mixed, but it seems that moderate aerobic activity might be optimal, although strengthening exercise also brings cognitive benefits in seniors. Before undertaking physical activity we also need to remember that exercise carries risk and that it might be worth studying your body. One thing is certain though, the human body is a machine designed to move so move it!
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