Exercise's Relation With the Brain

By Nathan Robinson

Exercise is widely known to have health benefits that improve bodily functions. Typical reasons to exercise include a desire to stretch out lifespan, compete in sports competitions, improve physique, or even just for fun. Despite the spotlight that exercise has on physical features, it drastically changes mental features as well.

Academically, there tends to be a large distinction between groups of people who do not exercise, and those who do. Individuals that don’t exercise are shown to have lower perception skills, creativity, concentration, achievements, IQ, and verbal abilities, among other things. In addition, older individuals that exercised had significantly increased brain volume compared to sedentary elders due to exercise’s reduction in risk in brain volume loss. Exercise has also been proven to increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) levels. BDNF is an essential protein coded by the BDNF gene that fundamentally maintains and grows neurons. Higher levels of BDNF can also combat depression, but exercise by itself should definitely not be used as the only means to treat depression.

In order to be the most effective with exercise, high intensity aerobic exercises seem to be the most rewarding for the brain. Whatever safe activity that increases heart rate to a considerably high level (around 70%-85% of an individual’s maximum heart rate) should lead to a good outcome, mentally. The reason for this may be not so apparent. A well known neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Wolpert claims that the only reason for a brain is in order “to produce adaptable and complex movements.” Fundamentally, the brain controls the entire body, which is why it is essential for complex movements. A neurological disease called Parkinson's causes irregular and seemingly random movements, which is due to damage to the body’s control center. More specifically, damage to nerve cells in a part of the brain called substantia nigra (a region that controls reward and movement). Exercise essentially improves motor function which obviously may combat damage to this region of the brain.

However, Parkinson’s is not the only neurological disease which is affected by exercise. The amount of exercise is a main factor in risks for Alzheimer’s. For example, individuals that exercised (for at least 15 minutes) less than 3 days per week were at a significantly higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s than the group who exercised more than 3 days per week. Alzheimer’s is essentially an atrophied brain with significantly less volume than a normal, healthy brain. Obviously Alzheimer’s cannot only be prevented from just exercise as there are a number of factors that can cause it, but exercise can significantly reduce the risk of obtaining it.

Despite all of the health benefits, many will unfortunately still not choose to engage in it. There is a clear reason why exercise is not as trivial as athletes make it seem. Humans have a dark past with exercise. Despite so much needed activity for survival, random periods of exercise was not a good use of our energy. If humans did enjoy exercise to the extent of constantly doing it, we would overwork our bodies, and risk death. Exercise also causes pain due to a significant usage of the body’s energy and damage to bodily tissue. Our own brains convince us to remain sedentary despite the ill effects. Sometimes I convince myself that if I don’t exercise, then I will prolong the heat death of the universe, but obviously there will be little variation. The simple tricks that we tell ourselves can be extremely discouraging, and rightly so, but the persistence through the discomfort and participating in the type of exercise that’s best for you can cause drastic improvements in health and mental capabilities.

Additional Content


1. How should I exercise?

The intensity of exercise differs per person. If you are a beginner at exercise, then you have to work with what you’ve got. Perhaps watch some instructional videos if you are completely new to a form of training. If you don’t start off slow, then you will probably get injured. Personally, I have gotten injured in the past for being reckless when it came to exercise. I joined my high school’s cross country team, and did 7 miles the first meet after doing basically 0 miles over summer. I got Osgood-Schlatter disease in my right leg due to this. Then later in the year I got a minor fracture on my leg and I had to leave the team because I was pushing myself way too hard. It’s cliché advice, but know your limits, and don’t push too hard, because you can’t improve if you are injured.

2. What if I am too busy to exercise?

It may sound blunt, but you have to make time to exercise. If you are constantly working, then maybe find a period when passive work can be done. For example, when an instructional video needs to be listened to. An example of this in my life is when I study math. I normally watch videos by The Organic Chemistry Tutor while I ride a stationary bike. I might do this during other basic exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, etc.), but normally I do other exercises when I watch something not as important as school as they may be too distracting from my work. Perhaps create a routine and set aside a time in the day for you to exercise. Take a short walk for a break, anything that brings the heart rate up is beneficial. Obviously whatever is optimal for the individual must be done, but exercise is a necessity!

3. I don’t have a place to exercise. What should I do?

Exercise does not need to take up several acres of land, it can be done adequately in a small area. Assuming you have a place to stand, you can likely perform a vast array of different exercises that increase heart rate substantially. For example, you can do sit-ups or in-place lunges or squats in a considerably small space, and both of those are fantastic exercises. Machines are also not needed to exercise. There are many instructional videos online which show good methods of exercising in a small space. It would be helpful if you were able to use some sort of machine (like the bike I mentioned) because of the unfavorable conditions present, but a jog in place or something to the likes of that is all that is needed.










Dr. Wolpert TED Talk

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