Why a workout session is as good for the brain as it is for the brawn

A quick jog can sharpen your memory, help you fight anxiety and keep Alzheimer’s at bay, says neuroscientist

A regular exercise regimen is as beneficial for the brain as it is for the heart, bones and muscles.

A good majority of the population tends to exercise for weight loss. The recurrent advice is to look beyond shedding a few stones and hitting the treadmill for other physical benefits, such as building fitness, gaining energy, developing immunity and sleeping better.

Yet, it is increasingly recognised that the benefits of exercise go well beyond the physical. A regular exercise regimen is as beneficial for the brain as it is for the heart, bones and muscles.

Neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, professor of Neural Science and Psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University, has said in an article in CNBC that exercise of the right kind can, apart from boosting physical health, also make one smarter. It can enhance “cognitive abilities such as learning, thinking, memory, focus and reasoning”, she says.

Focus enhancement

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Pointing out that just one 30-minute workout can sharpen concentration, Suzuki says its immediate benefit may last two hours or more. For this, the prescribed activities are what are termed ‘cardio’ exercises — cycling, swimming, brisk walking, running, jumping rope or sports such as tennis.

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She goes on to say such a session can shrink reaction times, which means your reflex will get quicker.

Anxiety suppression

The link between physical activity and reduced anxiety is rather widely researched. Each movement of the body releases beneficial neurotransmitters into the bran, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and acetylcholine, says the article. These in turn alleviate feelings of depression and anxiety.

For an instant mood lift, Suzuki recommends a 10-30-minute walk, or skipping the elevator for the stairs. A quick jog around the furniture could do the trick as well.

Anti-ageing

According to the neuroscientist, the brain — like any other muscle — becomes bigger and stronger with exercise. Hence, regular exercise can help it fight neurodegenerative (age-related) diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. This is because the physical activity “can increase the size of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex”, she says.

While ageing cannot be fully averted, it can certainly be delayed with exercises.

Brain cell growth

Further, exercise can promote the creation of new brain cells, or neurogenesis. This again enhances cognitive function. Further, the synapses between neurons in the brain become stronger, thereby helping brain cells communicate better. This is essential for the functioning of each organ of the body.

In 2014, a blog post in Harvard Health Letter pointed out that exercise sharpens memory and thinking via direct and indirect means. Under the former comes its ability to reduce insulin resistance and inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors. Under the indirect route comes its ability to improve mood and sleep, and bring down stress and anxiety, which in turn enhances brain health.

Suzuki recommends 3-4 sessions a week of 30-minute workouts sessions a week. Aerobic exercises are most preferred, as they increase the heart rate and help the brain get more oxygen. Domestic chores such as mopping, vacuuming and raking leaves count, too.

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