Brainwell® Blog

A Fit Body Makes A Fit Brain

If you want to improve your physical fitness you might head to the gym, go for a run, ride a skateboard, swim, or take up a sport. All of these healthy activities affect your body differently. Most improve your heart health and lower blood pressure, others build muscle, and some raise your endurance. But regular physical activity boosts not just your body; it’s good for your brain, too! 

Exercise improves and regulates mood, and has been shown to promote cognition, memory, and even the growth of brain cells. Fast-paced sports like tennis and basketball train pattern recognition skills and improve reaction time. On the extreme end of the spectrum, elite athletes can even develop neural abilities that seem like superpowers to the rest of us, allowing them to read the body kinematics of their opponents to before they even happen.

Runner's High - Nature's Analgesic

An intense workout initiates a number of physiological reactions. Your heart rate increases, you sweat, lactic acid builds up in your muscles, and your endocrine system—the hormone system of which the brain the largest part—releases pain-killing chemicals to counteract the uncomfortable effects of working your muscles and impacting your joints.

Your endocrine system releases two very potent chemicals: β-endorphin, a neuropeptide that acts as a powerful pain-killer, and anandamide, a neurotransmitter that produces a euphoric effect. Put together, this chemical cocktail is responsible for the mood lifting effect of exercise, familiar to all athletes, and commonly known as “runner's high.” And the good feeling doesn’t necessarily end when the workout does. A number of studies have linked regular exercise with improved overall mood. Some promising evidence shows that exercise may be useful in the treatment of depression, partially due to its mood lifting effects, and partially due to its association with another hormone, Brain Derived Neurotrophic Growth Factor, or BDNF.

BDNF - Elixir of the Mind

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Growth Factor (BDNF) is a protein that helps your brain grow new cells and strengthen old ones, and its benefits are hard to overstate. The functions of BNDF are our best known defenses for warding off neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. When you exercise, muscles produce a protein called FDNC5 in greater quantity. A fragment of this protein, called irisin, enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain, where it promotes the production of BDNF.

When cellular biologist Bruce Spiegelman of Harvard Medical School examined mice with diminished ability to produce FDNC5 (read the full report here), he found that certain areas of theirbrains had tiny holes. The mice also exhibited hyperactive behavior. Similarly, humans who secrete less BDNF have poor memory, anxiety, and depression. These findings are part of a growing body of research indicating that physical activity plays a vital role in the development and ongoing health of the brain.

What does that mean for you?

We all know that exercise is part of a healthy lifestyle, but with so much focus on cardiovascular health and weight management, the benefits to your brain can be overlooked. Physical activity may be the number one thing you can do to keep your mind healthy, improve learning, focus, and mood, and make your brain literally grow!

Whatever activity you choose, make sure to protect your head and avoid violent impacts. The neuroscience community cannot stress this enough, but the sporting world is unfortunately only beginning to take seriously the consequences of repetitive brain injury. Remember to always wear a helmet when recommended, and see a doctor right away if you think you’ve suffered a concussion.

Need to wind down from a tough workout? Brainwell games offer the perfect complement to a healthy, active lifestyle.  Combine your exercise routine with our suite of  brain games and make the most out of your body and brain!