5 Ways How Exercise Benefits Brain Health

We know that exercise is critical for disease prevention and can help control chronic health conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. But exercise can also be a secret weapon to stave off neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, and general cognitive decline. The brain requires 20% of the oxygen you consume and uses your bloodstream and blood vessels to get its delivery of this vital life source. It makes sense then, that exercise, which increases blood flow, can be beneficial to brain health. Multitudes of studies support this fact, even in those people with genetic mutations for early onset of Alzheimer’s have been shown to stave off the onset of the disease by 15 years with exercise. Exercise benefits are countless.

Direct Physical Exercise Benefits on the Brain: 

  • Reduces Insulin Resistance: Physical exercise not only increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain; it has a direct ability to reduce insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is when your muscles stop responding to insulin’s request to take glucose and put it into your muscles. When you eat carbohydrates, they are quickly broken down to glucose molecules and absorbed into the bloodstream. Glucose enters the bloodstream and needs to be carried to the muscles and around the body and brain for energy. But glucose cannot enter cells without insulin.   Insulin is produced by the pancreas when you eat carbohydrates and then it takes the glucose molecules to where they are needed. When you don’t exercise, the muscles never deplete their stores of glucose, so they don’t need any more and they refuse to let the insulin ‘turn the key’ and enter the muscles cells. This leads to rising glucose levels in the blood (high blood sugar). High blood sugar damages blood vessels and is one of the ways that diabetes contributes to cardiovascular disease. In this same way, high blood sugar can damage the vessels leading to the brain and lead to vascular dementia. When you exercise, you deplete the stored up glucose in your muscles (glycogen) and the muscles cells then become more welcoming to the insulin knocking on the door with some glucose because the cells need to replace what was used. This leads to improved insulin sensitivity. 

The damage from insulin resistance is 2-fold to the brain. The higher levels of blood sugar damage the blood vessels to the brain and the faulty insulin sensitivity damages the signaling in the brain. In the brain, insulin helps regulate food intake and it helps with many cognitive functions and signaling in the brain. Insulin resistance damages the cognitive system and can lead to dementia. This is how exercise can help with insulin resistance.  

  • Reduces Inflammation: Inflammation is the root of many lifestyle diseases; heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and even some cancers. Inflammation can be caused by eating too many processed foods, high carbohydrate foods, sugar laden foods and not eating enough fruits and vegetables. Chronic inflammation reduces the creation of new cells in the brain and accelerates the death of existing cells in the brain.

When you exercise, the muscle contractions lower the levels of inflammation in the body. Just 20 minutes per day of exercise can lower inflammation levels in the body.

  • Stimulates Growth Factors: There are groups of different growth factors that are stimulated during exercise and these chemicals help with the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and enhance the amount and survival of brain cells.

Indirect Physical Exercise Benefits:

  • Helps to reduce stress. Although exercise is a physical stressor, it has a paradoxical effect on stress in the long term and helps you to become more resilient. It can help with depression and anxiety. Research indicates that exercise almost acts as a ‘practice’ situation for dealing with stress; enhancing the body’s physiological processes ability to communicate with each other. Your cardiovascular system communicates with your respiratory system and muscular skeletal system and all in coordination with your central and autonomic nervous system (aka the stress response) creating a fine tuned response system that helps you be more resilient and grounded in response to life’s stressors.
  • Improves Sleep: Sleep is when your brain does its housekeeping. There are 2 types of cells that clean up your brain while you sleep. Microglial cells remove toxic proteins that are commonly found to be in abundance in Alzheimer’s patients. Astrocytes go to work to prune and clean up and repair the neural wiring; trimming away unnecessary synapses – the links that are created in learning and memory. Sleep deprivation disrupts these cells, making them attack healthy cells instead of the toxic cells. Exercise improves sleep and contributes to a more restorative sleep which helps the brain perform its necessary functions while you sleep.

What form of exercise should you do for brain health?

A routine that offers a wide variety of focus- cardio/aerobic, flexibility, strength and balance are all key factors in improving and maintaining good cognitive function.  

Cardio/Aerobic: Running, biking, swimming help to preserve existing brain cells and help to foster the growth of new ones. Studies indicate that long term moderate physical activity increases the volume of the hippocampus; the part of the brain that is involved in forming long term memories and is the first area to get damaged in Alzheimer’s disease.

Strength Training: Your bones and muscles need to be strong and resistance training helps. Strength training is shown to boost mood and brain power, enhance concentration and helps to sharpen those decision-making skills.

Flexibility: One well-researched form of exercise has been found to be a stand-out in cognitive function is Tai Chi. Research published in the Journal of Neuroimaging indicates that Tai Chi improves brain health and speed muscle recovery and improves balance, strength, flexibility and reduces stress.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

The American Heart Association recommendations for exercise:

  • Get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.
  • Add moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity (such as resistance or weights) on at least 2 days per week.
  • Spend less time sitting. Even light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary.
  • Gain even more benefits by being active at least 300 minutes (5 hours) per week.
  • Increase amount and intensity gradually over time

Other lifestyle components of brain health include getting enough sleep (at least 6-8 hours every night), managing stress (stress interferes with learning, memory and cognitive and executive function), maintaining a good social network of friends, boost your mental fitness with new activities and learning challenges and always seek medical attention for any problems.  

Working with your Rolling Strong Wellness coach can help you reach your goals in any of these lifestyle changes.  Small steps matter. What is your small step in better brain health that you can take today?

By:  Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach


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American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids.Www.heart.org

American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association

Charvat, Mylea. “Why Exercise Is Good for Your Brain.Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 7 Jan. 2019

Exercise Improves Memory, Boosts Blood Flow to Brain.ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 20 May 2020

Exercising Benefits the Brain Too.Healthy Brains by Cleveland Clinic, 29 Nov. 2018

Godman, Heidi. “Regular Exercise Changes the Brain to Improve Memory, Thinking Skills.Harvard Health Blog, 5 Apr. 2018

Gough, Keenan. “How to Reduce Chronic Inflammation through Exercise.Copeman Healthcare Centre, Keenan Gough