Today we welcome guest author Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroscientist, medical doctor, leadership coach, and bestselling author. She works with high-performing leaders to amplify their brain function, including stress and emotional responses, memory, and cognition. Her new book, “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain,” offers actionable steps to make lasting changes in your brain’s pathways that result in more positivity and ease.
The Benefits of Exercise You Didn’t Know About
by Tara Swart, M.D., Ph.D.
Exercise energizes our body and brain, causing us to breathe more deeply which oxygenates cells throughout our body. It has also been found to improve neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to change itself well into adulthood.
Regular exercise has a host of tangible health benefits for the brain. The combined results of 11 studies show that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia by 30 percent. It also makes your brain more agile. Those who exercise have better higher-brain functions like emotional regulation and flexible thinking and are better able to quickly switch between tasks.
Exercise helps grow new brain cells
In a study published in the journal Neuroscience Letters, researchers from the University of Texas looked at the impact of high-intensity exercise on a protein called BDNF, short for ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor’ which causes new nerve cells to grow.
BDNF is involved in brain cell survival and repair, mood regulation and cognitive functions such as learning and memory. Low BDNF levels are associated with a host of mental health disorders, including depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Extra credit: enjoy the type of exercise you do
In the Texas study, all adults who performed a session of high-intensity exercise experienced higher BDNF levels and improvements in cognitive function. But, what about how you feel while you’re doing it? Believe it or not, when we do exercise that we enjoy we release more BDNF than we do when it feels like a chore. Intention appears to be important in brain activity: wanting to do something, characteristic of an optimistic, abundant attitude, makes it more beneficial.
Different types of exercise benefit specific brain areas and functions
Different types of movement involve different parts of your brain. Just as with a muscle, working a specific area of your brain makes that area stronger, building and reinforcing the pathways that you use regularly.
Walking and aerobic exercise for memory, learning, and emotions
Walking and other aerobic exercise has been shown to create changes in the hippocampus – the part of our brain that relates to memory, learning and emotional control. The increased plasticity in the hippocampus and possible growth of new cells caused by BDNF – and increase in blood vessels supplying oxygen to that area during aerobic exercise – actually leads to growth in the volume of the hippocampal part of the brain. This also prevents the natural atrophy, or wasting away, of brain cells over time. Even a brisk walk is a way of maintaining and future-proofing your brain.
Hand-eye coordination activities for social and emotional well-being
Taking up table tennis or any sport that involves coordinating multiple factors as well as a social element, combines hand-eye coordination and socializing, and has been shown to increase brain thickness in the parts of the cortex related to social-emotional welfare. Exercise to build muscle that includes variety and coordination, such as dance, also has brain benefits.
Boxing to melt away stress
And finally, my personal favorite for the mind and body is boxing – it involves cardio, muscle toning and is the best stress reliever I have found in all my own experiments with exercise and mindfulness.
Air quality matters
Finally, for many of us living in increasingly polluted cities, air quality is the elephant in the room when it comes to well-being, and a subject that we will all be talking about in the near future. It’s one thing we can’t personally control, so it’s often easier to ignore its impact. Exercising in polluted areas actually decreases the secretion of BDNF compared to exercising in a clean environment or not at all!
When we exercise, we breathe deeply, and choosing to do so at the side of a busy road means we’re taking deep lungfuls of highly polluted air filled with toxic microparticles. Monitoring of air quality in the UK (and it is likely to be the same if not worse in US urban areas) concluded that the levels of nitrogen oxide inhaled by pedestrians and motorists were equivalent to smoking four cigarettes per minute – so not promoting the growth or connection of new cells and possibly even inhibiting it.
The good news if you struggle with maintaining good habits around regular exercise, know that inactive people experience higher levels of neurogenesis (growth of new brain cells) when they start aerobic exercise than people who exercise regularly. Start today to feel smarter!
Adapted from THE SOURCE: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain by Dr. Tara Swart, copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.