Exercise and the Brain

There is no doubt that exercise increases brain power. Studies clearly show that aerobic exercise improves cognitive function in brains of all ages. Blood flow and oxygen increase in the brain as circulation improves during exercise (Medina, 2008). Exercise also destroys “free radicals” that can cause your brain to deteriorate just as an apple exposed to air turns brown. Free radicals are leftover molecules of oxygen that are a direct result of using your brain.

Brain-derived neurotropic factor, usually referred to as BDNF, has been called Miracle-Gro for the brain (Medina, 2008; Ratey, 2008). It is released through exercise. By increasing neurotransmitter activity, improving blood flow, and producing brain- growth factors that act like fertilizer for the brain, exercise readies our neurons to connect more easily. Exercise performs this function better than any other factor of which we are currently aware.

Exercise has a number of other benefits. Specifically, it

• Improves attention and motivation by increasing levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.

• Decreases impulsivity by activating frontal lobe structures that inhibit random, divergent actions and thoughts through the release of more dopamine and serotonin.

• Creates more positive moods, lowers anxiety, and raises self-esteem through the release of more serotonin and norepinephrine.

• Helps overcome learned helplessness by improving resilience, improving self-confidence, and raising the ability to withstand stress and frustration.

• Causes stem cells in the brain to divide, which creates the possibility of making new brain cells.

• Adds new brain cells to the hippocampus (the memory control area), and may also add to the frontal cortex, where executive functioning takes place.

• Adds to the “chemical soup” that promotes the growth and survival of new neurons.

Exercise doesn’t make you smarter, but it does make you able to focus and learn. Many schools are involved in studies to examine the link between exercise and learn- ing. Naperville Central High School in Naperville, Illinois, is one of them. The school has developed a Zero Hour P.E. class, so named because it occurs in the morning before the school day begins. In these classes, sleepy students compete against themselves in physical fitness activities that raise their heart rates for a minimum of 25 minutes. The results have included higher test scores, better reading ability, and overall higher grades (Ratey, 2008).

In addition to its relationship to increased brain function, exercise is being examined for other purposes. Some studies indicate that attention deficit disorder (ADD) is better controlled through exercise than medication. Anxiety and depres- sion are also affected by exercise, which may be more useful than other common methods of control. And, of course, the aging brain benefits from exercise in many ways, which may include a delay in the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

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