It’s no secret that exercise improves our physical fitness, but staying in shape can also boost our cognitive abilities as well. Along with reducing the chances of developing heart disease, diabetes or a stroke, exercise can prevent and fight against depression, improve memory, and sharpen our thinking abilities.
The term ‘aerobic exercise’ can be defined as any kind of physical exertion of low to high intensity that requires the energy-generating process. ‘Aerobic’ essentially means ‘relating to, involving, or requiring free oxygen,’ and alludes to the use of oxygen molecules to meet the energy required during exercise by way of aerobic metabolism.
In more simple terms, any type of cardiovascular exercise is considered aerobic exercise. That means walking, running, swimming, cycling, dancing, kickboxing, and hiking.
In a study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia, it was discovered that consistent aerobic exercise increased the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in both verbal memory and learning. In the same study, the same results were not seen those who only performed balance exercises, resistance training, and muscle toning exercises.
Similar experimental results were repeated during a similar study that took place at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. This study showed that when people between the ages of 55 to 80 who regularly committed to a walking routine for a year, the hippocampus, which generally loses mass as we age, increased in size. The same group of individuals in the experiment that aerobically exercised regularly was found to have a greater neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein found in the brain that supports the growth and survival of nerve cells. Patients with Alzheimer’s have been shown to have less BDNF than is found in healthy individuals.
The cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise stem directly from its ability to assist in the reduction of inflammation, lowering of insulin resistance, and stimulation of the release of nerve growth factors – biochemicals found in the nervous system and brain which positively affect the health of brain cells, promote the growth of new brain cells, and the help to grow new blood vessels in the brain. As oxygenated blood reaches brain cells more easily and more efficiently, brain function seems to improve.
People who aerobically exercise are also more likely to experience improved sleep and have a better mood while their anxiety and stress levels are reduced. Difficulty in these areas has been known to contribute to cognitive impairment. So, if you can upregulate sleep and mood while you downregulate anxiety and stress, you’re brain function will thank and reward you for it.
In order to experience the cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise, you don’t need to begin training like you’re going to run a marathon. These can occur if you’re able to get some form of cardiovascular exercise each day. Maybe you’re getting older and don’t remember things as well as you used to, and you would like to sharpen up. Perhaps you’re a student or professional that is looking for a mental edge over your peers and colleagues. In any case, regular aerobic, cardiovascular exercise can assist you in these endeavors. Don’t discount it! Go out, exert aerobically and get your heart rate up.