By Yeo Chee Yew
“What if I told you there was something that you can do right now that would have an immediate, positive benefit for your brain including your mood and your focus? And what if I told you that same thing could actually last a long time and protect your brain from different conditions like depression, Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Would you do it?” - Wendy Suzuki
If your answer to that was a resounding yes, then you’d definitely be interested to learn about the science underlying why exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today. This article is an adaptation of Wendy Suzuki’s 2017 Ted Talk on the topic, where she discusses the science of how working out boosts your mood and memory -- and protects your brain against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
The act of simply moving your body has immediate, long-lasting and protective benefits for your brain. And that can last for the rest of your life. A single workout that you do will immediately increase levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. That is going to increase your mood right after that workout.
The prefrontal cortex, located right behind your forehead, is critical for things like decision-making, focus, attention and your personality. Acute exercise has been shown to deliver positive transient effects on the prefrontal cortex that can last up to two hours after the termination of physical activity. Therefore, an accumulation of sessions of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise will, over time, increase neurogenesis and angiogenesis in the prefrontal cortex, promoting greater executive control.
You have two temporal lobes in your brain, the right and the left, and deep in the temporal lobe is a key structure critical for your ability to form and retain new long-term memories for facts and events. And that structure is called the hippocampus. Suzuki explained that exercise actually produces brand new brain cells in the hippocampus that contribute to an increase in its volume and consequently its memory capacity.
But really, the most transformative thing that exercise will do is its protective effects on your brain. Here, you can think about the brain like a muscle. The more you're working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets. Why is that important? Because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in ageing.
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In other words, long-term exercise helps you to create the strongest, biggest hippocampus and prefrontal cortex so it takes longer for these diseases to actually have an effect. It can also alleviate symptoms of depression and addiction, as long as the end goal is a healthy one. Best of all, it is free!
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This is the point where you’d go, "That sounds so interesting, but I really will only want to know one thing. And that is, just tell me the minimum amount of exercise I need to get all these changes."
Good news! You don’t have to become a triathlete to get these effects. The minimum weekly recommendation for adults is 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity, sport or exercise, in 10 minute (or longer) sessions. This helps you decrease your risk of developing almost every chronic disease, raises your daily energy and improves your productivity at work.
More good news - it doesn’t have to be a seismic shift to your daily routine! It could be as simple as adding an extra lap around the block before you head home. Or taking the stairs wherever feasible. You could even put in more elbow grease while dishwashing or vacuuming! Making small but easy to accomplish steps not only makes it less demanding, but you’d also feel more motivated to continue improving!
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As Suzuki would conclude in her talk, bringing exercise into your life will not only give you a happier, more protective life today, but it will protect your brain from incurable diseases. And in this way, it will change the trajectory of your life for the better.
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