The Relationship Between Exercise and Cognition
As we start the New Year, we are often reminded of the importance of physical activity. Perhaps you made a resolution to exercise more in order to build and maintain the muscles in your body. However, a benefit of exercise that you may not have considered is the profound effect it has on the most magnificent muscle of all: your brain.
The brain is the “primary receiver, organizer, and distributor of information for the body” (MedicineNet.com). These mental processes are known as “cognition.” The National Multiple Sclerosis Society defines cognition as “the ability to learn and remember information; organize, plan and problem-solve; focus, maintain and shift attention as necessary; understand and use language; accurately perceive the environment; and perform calculations.”
In multiple sclerosis, exercise creates neuroprotective agents that help lessen the decline in these cognitive functions, which is a commonly associated challenge with this disease (Sutliff, M). However, decades of research also shows that increased physical activity may enhance brain function and cognitive processing.
By increasing your heart rate, more oxygen pumps to your brain and hormones are released that nourishes growth in brain cells. Exercise also stimulates brain plasticity, which grows new “neuronal connections” between cells in important areas of the brain (Moltenti, R. et al). These connections help significantly with “dual tasking” or “multitasking” – both physical multi-tasking, such as walking and carrying an object, as well as cognitive multitasking, such as walking and reciting a grocery list. Improved cognitive function also helps with your movement, balance, and preventing falls. Finally, exercise has been widely recognized has having anti-depressant benefits (commonly known as a “runner’s high”), which is also associated with cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory (Bjornebekk, A et al).
It is important to know that the brain, like any other muscle, grows and gets stronger when you use it. Conversely, cognitive functions are essentially “use it or lose it.” Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes “facilitates information processing and memory functions” (Tomporowski, P). A 30-year study of 2,020 subjects found that people who exercised “fared better in terms of mental acuity than those who did not exercise” (NYC Fitness News).
Exercise can involve flexibility activities such as yoga, strengthening activities such as lifting weights, balance training such as a Tai Chi class, or aerobic activities such as riding a bike. In addition to aerobic benefits, dance classes can have a high impact on cognitive functions as it integrates different parts of the brain such as coordination, rhythm, and strategy (BrainHQ.com). Even short walks, cooking, gardening or cleaning can help improve cognition (NYC Fitness News).
There are countless ways to stay active and take care of your brain! The best way to develop a physically and cognitively effective exercise routine is seeking out a physical therapist or personal trainer that is familiar with the critical connection between exercise and brain health.