Exercise as “Brain Food” and Its Impact on How We Le
I am sure we are all familiar with the old adages “Drink your milk, it will make your bones strong” and “Eat your spinach, so your muscles will be big like Popeye’s”.
As common and “parental” as these phrases may seem, they are actually backed by science. The calcium our body absorbs when we drink milk is related to bone strength. The vitamins and minerals in spinach (and many other vegetables) will allow our body to function in a better way, giving us more energy to become strong. There is a new idea circulating in research (as well as mainstream media) and the evidence based recommendation is:
“Get heart pumping exercise to strengthen your BRAIN”
Not your heart, not your muscles, not your lungs, though those results will also occur and be beneficial. However the focus of the emerging research I am referring to is showing that aerobic or vigorous exercise likely leads to increases in brain function (also known as “cognition”) and improve a person’s memory, attention, and academic performance overall.
How does this work?
First a little background on how fascinating our brains are…
Remember the days of Play Doh? Molding, mashing, creating- keeping us busy for hours? Remember what happened if you left the Play Doh out of its container for too long (ok maybe it was just me who did this as a little kid?). Let me fill you in- it becomes rock solid. Yup, no more forming dogs and houses and “doh” patties. It was literally unable to be shaped. About 100 years ago that is how scientists viewed our brains, once formed, sort of hard and “un-moldable”. However, many brilliant scientists over the years have thankfully discovered that our brains are not “stuck” after a certain age. Our brains are actually constantly adapting and responding, a concept with a fancy name termed “neuroplasticity”. Neuroplasticity simply means that our brains can change and DO change, depending on what kind of “stuff” we put in it. This type of stuff that influences our brain includes:
- What we listen to: loud music, background noise; research shows that young children and babies who are exposed to great amounts of noise (White noise, background noise, tv produced noise) may have significant negative effects on their attention and learning later in life.
- What we see: images that we watch on tv and movies, pictures we look at influence how our brains experience real life. It can be a negative experience if we “feed” our brains with violent, angry or traumatic images on a regular basis. On the other hand when we provide our brains with positive, relaxing and funny input, it can boost our body systems as a whole.
- What we eat: foods high in antioxidants (berries, greens, and yes, DARK CHOCOLATE) protects the insulation cells in our brain keeping it functioning as fast as we need it to
- What and how we learn: this is one of the hottest topics in research right now, as we are seeing that even well into adulthood (When brains are LESS likely to change) the connections in our brain can be strengthened with learning new tasks (such as a language, or a picking up a new creative hobby such as painting or drawing), reading new material, or doing word and number puzzles.
- How we rest: The importance of sleep, and good quality sleep (READ: NO TV, MORE THAN 6 HOURS, etc) is essential to maximizing our brain potential
- HOW WE MOVE: This is the main point of this post and will be the focus from here on out…
Scientists have discovered that when we exercise (especially when we perform aerobic exercise; meaning heart pumping, heavy breathing, maybe even break a sweat type exercise) that our brains respond by releasing an amazing chemical called BDNF. The long and very complex name for this chemical is brain derived neurotrophic factor. But actually, I prefer to refer to it as “Big Deal Neuro Food”.
This extremely powerful little chemical leads to BIG changes in our brain circuitry. Think of your brain as a series of wires, all criss- crossed and interconnected like a web.
Image from www.noigroup.com
Here is a very simple representation of what happens to the pathways in our brain when we exercise:
Keep in mind these pathways can be even stronger when you feed it “good food” from all of the other items listed above (what we see, learn, eat, etc). The other great news is that you do not have to LOVE exercise or be a marathon runner to experience these benefits.
A study conducted on middle school aged children showed that just 12 minutes of vigorous exercise had a positive effect on their attention and academic related performance. This is not just for kids!
A study of healthy adults demonstrated significant improvements in tests for attention and memory after participating in aerobic exercise for 30 minutes. This is great news, as this means that it is accessible for everyone (ie. You do not need fancy equipment or a gym) as well as doable even with a busy schedule. There are so many forms of exercise out there to get our hearts pumping; it can be running, but it can also be so many other things, dancing vigorously, swimming, jumping jacks, kickboxing/ punching bag, biking, hiking, jump rope… the list could go on! As a physical therapist working with patients with spinal cord injury I taught my patients who were unable to move their lower body at all how to get a great aerobic workout with their upper bodies. IT IS POSSIBLE & IT IS NECESSARY.
It saddens me when I hear about physical education and sports programs being cut from schools. We are literally working against ourselves and putting kids at a disadvantage by plunking them in a desk to sit all day and requiring them to be attentive and learn. Our bodies were not made to sit all day (for a great read: Sitting is the New Smoking) and it is certainly not an optimal environment for our brains to get stronger.
As now a professor teaching graduate students, one of the things I encourage MOST often and especially around examination time, is regular vigorous exercise, as well as sleep.
Keep this in mind next time you go outside for some fresh air, you’re in gym class, shooting hoops with friends, and just anytime you are taking time for yourself to get that heart going… you are doing more than just increasing your heart health, your mood and overall well- being; you are BOOSTING YOUR BRAIN!