We know that exercise is “good for our health,” but only recently have scientists begun to piece together how a regular exercise routine positively impacts the brain. One effective way to combat the brain fog that begins to plague us all as we age is to engage in regular aerobic exercise.
This article will explore the many benefits that aerobic exercise has on our brains. As readers will soon see, aerobic exercise can improve working memory, decrease stress, and induce feelings of well-being, among other benefits.
Let’s explore how exercise can improve your brain’s health. But first, let’s define aerobic exercise.
What is Aerobic Exercise?
Aerobic exercise is physical activity that triggers aerobic respiration, which is a form of energy generation that your body uses when regular metabolic processes aren’t enough to meet your energy needs. In regular terms, it is the kind of exercise that gets your blood pumping and your chest heaving.
The Aerobic Heart Rate Zone
The aerobic heart rate zone, the target heart rate for aerobic exercise, is between 70 and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. You want to sustain activity in this zone when performing aerobic exercise for maximum brain benefits.
Examples of Aerobic Exercise
There are many ways to engage in aerobic exercises. Here are some common aerobic exercises:
- Brisk Walking
- Martial Arts
Essentially, aerobic exercise is anything that brings your heart rate up to the aerobic heart rate zone and gets you sweating.
Even daily chores, like vacuuming, shoveling snow, or cleaning, can get your heart rate pumping in the aerobic zone—there are many ways to get beneficial aerobic exercise! For example, check out our TireFlip 180®, or the Sledmill™ for exercise equipment that can get your heart rate up into the aerobic heart rate zone. Equipment such as our Battle Rope ST® is perfect for full body HIIT workouts that will definitely stimulate your brain through aerobic exercise.
Ok, so we know what aerobic exercise is, but what does it do for our brains?
Introducing Neurogenesis, Neuroplasticity, and Neurochemistry
The benefits of regular aerobic exercise can be categorized into three specific brain factors—neurogenesis, neuroplasticity, and neurochemistry. These three factors are enhanced by regular aerobic exercise and lead to numerous benefits to a person’s cognitive health and brain function.
This is the process of creating new neurons. Before 1990, the medical consensus was that the adult brain was incapable of producing new brain cells—called neurons. It was believed that neurogenesis was only possible in the developing brains of embryos. However, stem cells were found to be active in adult brains.
The brain areas where adult neurogenesis is most common are the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the lateral ventricles. The first two areas are associated with memory and emotion, respectively.
And what did scientists discover about adult neurogenesis? That aerobic exercise was a factor in promoting the generation of new brain cells in these brain regions.
By stimulating new growth in the regions of the brain responsible for working memory and emotional regulation, aerobic exercise can help in the following ways:
- Increased focus and attention
- Improved memory
- Decreased brain fog
- Improved defense against the adverse effects of aging
Generally, neuroplasticity refers to the brain's ability to change its structure and function to match external circumstances and experiences. It affects how we learn and adapt to changes in our lives.
Exercise stimulates neuroplasticity directly by altering the connection between neurons—called synapses—and indirectly by boosting the brain cells—called glial cells—that support neuroplasticity and keep neurons healthy.
When put another way, neuroplasticity refers to a brain’s ability to learn. The ability of the brain to change and adapt to experiences doesn’t stop with childhood, contrary to popular belief. Aerobic exercise helps a person be more adaptable and increases their ability to learn at all stages of life.
Because aerobic exercise improves neuroplasticity, it acts as a solid defense against both age-related mental decline and cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer's and dementia. Therefore, aerobic exercise can help with the following:
- Prevention of degenerative brain diseases
- Improved ability to learn and adapt to new changes
- Improved health of supportive brain cells that keep the brain working optimally
Neurochemistry refers to the many different chemical compounds that are created by and utilized by our nervous system. Neurochemical compounds control nearly every aspect of our brain’s functioning. Regular aerobic exercise helps regulate the production of these essential chemical compounds, helping our brains in many vital ways. Perhaps the most beneficial effect of regular aerobic exercise is how it helps the brain deal with stress.
Dealing With Stress
Stress leaves chemical signatures in the brain in the form of cortisol and other hormones that can negatively impact brain function. Regular aerobic exercise helps to reduce the presence of these stress hormones by producing norepinephrine, which makes the brain more efficient at clearing out stress hormones.
Regular exercise also affects your brain’s production of serotonin and dopamine, which are vital neurotransmitters responsible in part for the regulation of mood and feelings of well-being. As a result, regular aerobic exercise is often considered just as effective as antidepressant medications in treating anxiety and depression.
Aerobic exercise aids in the production of essential neurochemicals that help your brain with the following:
- Reduced stress
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved mood
- Reduced depression
When You Work Out Your Body, You Work Out Your Mind
Are you convinced yet? If you want to stave off the effects of cognitive decline, improve your working memory and feel better about yourself, there isn’t a better way than engaging in regular aerobic exercise.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the average adult should get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise—or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise—per week.
Jenn Walker is a freelance writer, blogger, dog-enthusiast, and avid beach-goer living unapologetically in recovery. She advocates living a wholesome, healthy lifestyle and writes on behalf of Maryville, an addiction treatment center in NJ.