Exercise and the Brain
Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? The evidence is incontrovertible: aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance. Exercise is not only good for our physical health but it benefits our mental health and abilities too. Physical exercise can affect how much of certain proteins are made in the brain. In particular, the levels of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF for short) increase after exercise.
Not long ago, a mention of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) would have elicited a blank stare from all but neuroscientists. Dr. John J. Ratey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, changed that in a big way with the publication of his book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In SPARK, Ratey termed BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” A massive amount of research, Ratey explained, has shown that BDNF “nourishes neurons [brain cells] like fertilizer.” When researchers sprinkle BDNF onto neurons in the lab, the cells spontaneously sprout new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning.
BDNF is essential for maintaining healthy neurons while creating new ones, and has already been shown to enhance mental abilities while also acting against anxiety and depression in mice, and might act in similar way in humans. In the brain, BDNF is active in the hippocampus, cortex, and forebrain—areas vital to learning, memory, and higher thinking. In one recent study, results provide evidence that high-intensity but not low-intensity physical exercise led to less forgetting of newly learned vocabulary compared to a relaxing group. Nevertheless, it is currently unclear how exercise increases the production of BDNF by cells in the brain, but there has been a lot of research on this very topic in attempt to gain a better understanding.
BDNF is good stuff so how can you get more of it?
One word: STIMULATION. Stimulation of your brain and all its cells can come in many forms. Of course, traditional brain exercise has been thought of as activities such as cross words and Sudoku (which are definitely good!) but exercise is another aspect you can add to the list. As little as 30 minutes of jogging/three days a week has been shown to improve brain functioning, but even better gains have been suggested with more complex activity, which requires you to build or acquire a skill. CrossFit is a great example of this since it challenges your balance, coordination and thinking!
TIP: Want to maximize the increased learning capacity of your brain? Don’t try to learn something while exercising (stop taking your study notes to the spin bike!) – blood flow increases to the brain post-exercise, while BDNF levels are still increased, meaning immediately after exercise is the perfect time to take in new information.
At Bainbridge Island CrossFit, we will be encouraging teens to work on homework as a "cool down" after each class, and cognitive exercises like "brain games" will be sprinkled in at the end of our Vitality classes. If you can't stick around after class, put on that French language, math or vocabulary podcast on the way home after your workout and learn away!