Just as doing push-ups pumps up the size of your triceps, so does aerobic exercise appear to increase the volume of your brain! American researchers reporting in the British Journal of Sports Medicine show that physical exercise, especially aerobic activity, improves the functioning and structure of the brains of older people.
Improvements in brain size, with increased volumes of grey and white matter, and better brain function were found in both those with and without dementia. The so called functions of “executive control,” that help us carry on our lives planning, remembering and changing tasks are those first attacked by dementia. But study co-author Art Kramer of the University of Illinois notes that these functions are those most helped with exercise. Dementia is not only forestalled, but in some ways actually reversed with 6 months of aerobic activity. Brains benefiting from the exercise exertions of their owners maintained plasticity, essentially the capabilities to continue growing, developing and learning.
Although huge rewards accrue to both brain and body from simply walking, these researchers point out the increased benefit from more rigorous aerobic activities, such as jogging, that cause increases in heart rate and rate of breathing. So by all means walk your 10,000 steps a day, at least 5 miles, but also pick up the pace for some of those steps. Jogging one of those five miles and moving your heart rate up into your age-appropriate training zone will yield great benefits, toning your body and growing your brain. Professor Kramer summarized, “We can safely argue that an active lifestyle with moderate amounts of aerobic activity will likely improve cognitive and brain function, and reverse the neural decay frequently observed in older adults.”
If you bliss out your brain with exercise, there is now good evidence your brain will return the favor. “Runner’s high,” is a flowing, blissful, pain-free experience associated with aerobic exercise. Formerly, the enjoyable mental and physical state was associated solely with endorphins, the body’s natural opiates. With the discovery of the endocannabinoid receptor system and endogenous cannabinoids produced by our own bodies, such as anandamide and 2-AG, this explanation is taking a new turn. After you begin exercising, your level of natural bliss cannabinoid anandamide elevates, and more of these bliss molecules float in your bloodstream, ready to jump the blood-brain barrier and activate CB1receptors on your nerve cells. The result is pain reduction and mood elevation. So, in addition to endorphins, endocannabinoids such as anandamide reward you for your exercise efforts.
Better adaptive functioning and increased brain volumes are, at least in part, due to neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells. Both exercise and cannabinoids promote neurogenesis. So, to gain huge health rewards, second-by-second, year-by-year, for your entire life, bliss out your brain with exercise. Walk every day, run some too, lift some weights, and every cell in your brain and body benefits.