Exercise is often touted as the “cure all” (or “panacea” for all you vocab lovers) for everything from obesity to mood swings to stress. The reality is that most teenagers – whether they run, practice yoga, or shoot hoops – tend to focus on the physical benefits of exercise. Understanding the biology behind how their exercise affects their brains is something else.
Exercise and our brainS
Exercise is incredibly important, but it’s real impact is not on our bodies, but on our brains. The brain’s primary job is to produce adaptable and complex movements. By understanding the bidirectional flow of information between the brain and the body, we can begin to understand why exercise is so important for brain health — and for learning, in particular.
Movement is how the brain knows something is happening and that it should pay attention. This is because for as long as human beings have been around, movement has been key to our survival. It’s how we found food and avoided predators. So when you’re moving, it is in your best interest to be paying attention to where you are, where you were, and where you’re going. You don’t want to get lost, starve to death, or get eaten! Remembering these things and learning from your experience will, in turn, make you more likely to find food, evade predators, and stay alive long enough to pass on your genes to the next generation.
From your brain’s perspective, being sedentary means it’s safe and you do not need to be as alert. But when you start moving a lot, your brain becomes much more alert. Essentially, exercise primes the brain to learn faster.
Exercise and learning
Research has consistently found a link between neurocognitive performance and aerobic exercise (movement that requires an increase in oxygen consumption).
Higher levels of aerobic exercise are associated with improvements in attention, processing speed, executive function, and memory. Those four skills are all necessary to crush an ACT or SAT and excel at school and work.
A neurotransmitter called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is what allows our brains to change as we learn new things. BDNF causes neurons to grow new branches and form new connections in the brain. It also protects them from the natural processes of cell death.
Aerobic exercise is the best way to increase levels of BDNF. One study found that 30–40 minutes of aerobic exercise increased BDNF by 32%. BDNF’s mechanism of action may be difficult to understand, but there’s no question it’s critical for the function and growth of neurons — the crucial biological link among our thoughts, emotions, and movements.
So what should you do?
The benefits of exercise go far beyond the effects on the body; exercise primes your brain to learn and sharpens attention, processing speed, and memory. So, the next time you need a brain boost, instead of making another pot of coffee, try a quick jog around the block.
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