Exercise is an important tool to maintain mental and physical health. Typically, when we decide what exercise or activity we want to do, we base it on how it will make us feel afterward. I’ve talked a lot about how exercise and mental health go hand in hand, but aside from the obvious, what does exercise really do for our brain?
Neuroplasticity refers to the ability the brain has to adapt in response to experience and stimuli. These changes are both structural and functional. Most of us have been told in our lives that after a certain age, our brain is fully “developed.” While this is not necessarily wrong, it is also not necessarily true. Let me explain. Throughout our lives, we are constantly generating new cells, and that includes brain cells. However, unlike many other cell types, the growth of brain cells occurs in restricted brain regions, and over time, the number of Neural Stem Cells significantly decreases, hindering the growth of new cells. Neuroplasticity is vital to the human brain because it is associated with learning ability, cognitive function, and memory.
Why is this important? According to several scientific studies, physical activity has been shown to increase neuroplasticity! According to a study published in Neural Plasticity, exercise was found to increase neurotrophic factors. Neurotrophic factors are specialized proteins that are essential in the survival, production, and functionality of the nervous system. Essentially, exercise was shown to aid in neural cell growth and proliferation. In addition, learning new exercises not only strengthens previously established neural pathways but also helps form new connections and pathways, which improves brain function.
The benefits of exercise can be obvious, but they extend much deeper than what we can see and feel. Maintaining an active lifestyle is an important tool to keep our brains healthy and sharp! If you want to learn more about physical activity, I have attached two great articles below!
Hu, Yue, Han Q. Zhou, and Zhou Zou. 2022. “The Combined Influences of Exercise, Diet and Sleep on Neuroplasticity.” Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.831819/full.
Santos, Tony M. 2020. “Effects of Physical Exercise on Neuroplasticity and Brain Function: A Systematic Review in Human and Animal Studies.” NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7752270/.