It is quite common to read about, or hear exercise enthusiasts explain the benefits that exercise has on the heart, muscles, lungs, connective tissue, and so on. But, I have rarely heard mention of how exercise improves brain health. Although, there is plenty of evidence showing that exercise is beneficial to the brain.
Exercise improves memory and learning in humans and animals. Exercising individuals might be less susceptible to loss of cognitive functioning associated with aging or neurodegenarative disease. One of the key mechanisms underlying these effects on the brain is neuronal growth in the hippocampus — an area of the brain important for cognition (Kobilo, et al., 2010).
In an article published in Trends in Neurosciences (2009), H. Van Pragg made the following comment:
Exercise is a quantifiable activity that improves cognition in young and aged animals and humans. The beneficial effects of exercise are likely to be mediated in part by hippocampal neurogenesis. Further investigation into the functional significance of neurogenesis, by designing behavioral tasks that are specific for the dentate gyrus, will help to determine the relative contribution of the new cells.
The effects of exercise are enhanced by dietary supplements. However, the concept that nutrition has a direct influence on brain function is not well accepted. This is due, in part, to the large number of natural products that claim benefits for cognition, the lack of identification of specific active molecules and the limited number of intervention studies in humans.
Among the many benefits of exercise – increased cardiovascular health, stronger bones and muscles, stronger connective tissue, increased overall fitness, athleticism – accumulating evidence shows improved brain health can be added to the list. In the article mentioned above Van Pragg (2009) suggests that exercise and dietary supplements work synergistically to improve brain health. However, nutrition’s direct role in improving brain health is unclear.
There are many supplement companies that sale products purported to improve brain health, but they often fail to provide evidence for their claims. Generally, evidence for their products is in the form of testimonials (testimonials are considered a weak form of evidence, especially when it comes to your health). With little evidence to support their use, people should be wary of purchasing or using any of these kinds supplements.
Yet another reason to exercise — improved brain health.
Kobilo, K., Potter, M.C., & Van Pragg, H. (2010). Neurogenesis and exercise. Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience. Pages 404-409.
Van Praag, H. (2009). Exercise and the brain: something to chew on. Trends in Neurosciences. May; 32(5): 283-290