It is not just about staying physically healthy, but also about using the full potential of your mind. The correlation between physical exercise and the brain’s cognitive function and mental performance has been a subject for numerous studies, by various experts in the medical fields.
Reporter: Adrian Vasilescu | Sub-Editor: Marwa Khalifa
A study published on the 2nd of April 2014 involved 2,747 people with the average age of 25. They were part of a treadmill test 20 years ago, and once again 20 years later. The purpose of the study was to test verbal memory, psychomotor speed and executive function, 25 years after the beginning, a time span during which the participants underwent regular physical exercise. The fitter the participants were as young adults, the better their overall mental performances were. One of the tests involved the Stroop effect which was designed to measure the interference in the reaction time of a task. Basically, the Stroop test consists of a number of colours written in letters of a colour different from the one the word describes. For example, the word “yellow” written in red letters. The participants had to state the colour of the ink instead of reading the word, and the fitter they were, the more often they could state the ink colour correctly. Overall, researchers came to the conclusion that exercise had a considerable impact on mental performance.
Mental performance is commonly defined as a number of capabilities, like memory, problem solving and focus, which go hand-in-hand, and we can refer to them as a whole as intelligence. Note that physical exercise does not, in essence, make one more intelligent, however, it allows them to live up to their own full potential, with a more fluid flow of thought and cognitive processes.
So why and how does it work?
For starters, exercise regulates the blood circulation in the brain and thus various neurotransmitters with crucial roles in the cognitive processes are enhanced. Increased heart rate means more rapid flow of blood, which in turn means more oxygen pumped into the brain. Consequentially, the effort causes the body to release multiple different hormones which favour the growth and well-being of the brain cells, and new neuronal connections form throughout the brain. For example, when it comes to cardio exercise, the body produces a protein called FNDC5, which afterwards is released into the bloodstream as a molecule called Irisin. Essentially, it stimulates the genes responsible for one’s ability to learn and memorise. Scientists also believe that exercise facilitates the production of another type of protein called BDNF, which stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Aside from its fancy name, this protein facilitates the transmission of signals within cells and aids the functions of the synapses. As a bonus, it is also believed that BDNF has neuroprotective capabilities. These are only two of the examples.
When it comes to memory in particular, it is favoured indirectly via stress reduction. It is believed that long-term stress can cause significant damage to the plasticity of the hippocampus – the area in the brain responsible for memory – which can result in impaired, or at least not fully efficient memory. That is where physical exercise comes in. It regulates the levels of stress through a particular area of the brain called the amygdala, which, essentially, is in charge with emotions. This happens due to the fact that, aside from enhanced cognitive processes, physical exercise also has mood-enhancing effects, which, in turn, have positive effects on your mental performance. One of the results of exercise is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us enjoy activities and gives us the feeling of pleasure and joy. Increased dopamine equals lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression, to which the amygdala responds with happiness, which facilitates the cell growth and plasticity of the hippocampus and better memory. Good memory obviously gets along very well with the ability to solve problems and focus.
Workout also favours the health and well-being of the brain when it comes to protecting it from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In the former’s case, the disease affects the hippocampus at the beginning, and the effects on memory discussed above help prevent/ battle it to a certain degree. As for the latter, Parkinson’s is characterised by a dopamine deficit in the body, which causes the slow loss of and instability of the motor functions. Since exercise means quite a boost in the levels of dopamine, it can constitute a solid way of preventing/combatting the disease. So alongside the beneficial effects on cognition, exercise also protects you from brain degeneration.
How should you work out in order to achieve these results?
Not too little, not too much. Moderation is the key. Regular exercise and being constantly physically active works perfectly. What one needs is a good balance between cardio and strength training, and for over 30 minutes, in order for the exercise to be efficient. If you do too little, the effects are unrecognisable, and if you push yourself too hard, it starts being unhealthy. Keep it moderate and regular, and you are good
As a bonus, I conducted an interview with Tom Walker, physiotherapist at Marylebone physiotherapy & sports medicine in London. In the brief video above, he talks about the correlation between physical exercise, health and cognition.