17 Neurobiological Benefits of Physical Exercise
It is common knowledge that physical exercise is one of the most important things you can do for your health. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 20 minutes of moderate to intense aerobic activity each day such as running, swimming, and cycling in order to maintain neurobiological health.
However, not everyone meets these recommended, physical exercise requirements. As of 2013, 79.7% of adults 18 years of age or over in the United States did not meet the Physical Activity Guidelines for both aerobic physical and muscle-strengthening activity.
While in the midst of our busy lives, finding the time to exercise often gets put on the back burner. Yet, exercising is one of the most important, if not the most important, aspects to living a healthy life style. Without your health, you wont have the mental and physical energy to carry on with your usual daily endeavors.
So why is physical activity so essential to living a healthy life? The answer to this question lies within the neurobiological alterations that occur in the body as a result physical exercise. Particularly, aerobic exercises are greatly associated with structural and functional improvements of the brain and neural pathways. Below are 17 neurobiological benefits of physical exercise that should substantiate why everyone should be putting in their time to living a more physically active life.
1) Improved executive functions
The executive functions are a set of processes that enable us to self-regulate, plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and multi-task. These functions serve the brain by filtering out distractions, prioritizing tasks, setting and achieving goals, and controlling impulses.
A large body of research exists showing the benefits of physical exercise on executive functions. For example, a study conducted by Alves et al., (2012), found that both acute aerobic and strength exercise contributed to an increase in executive functioning .
What is fascinating about the existing research on physical activity and executive function is that improvements can be seen with only minimal bouts of exercise (i.e. 20 to 30 minutes of exercise).
2) Enhanced cognition
A person’s cognition is their set of all mental abilities and processes related to creativity and knowledge. Based upon this definition, much research has shown that physical activity is directly correlated with improved cognitive processes in all ages.
This enhancement of cognitive functioning occurs following periods of physical exercise by increasing the amount of blood flow to the brain. This supports cognitive functioning by providing the brain with essential nutrients such as glucose and oxygen.
Perhaps the most important neurobiological phenomenon that contributes to improved cognitive processes when being physically active is the enhanced levels of brain-derived neurotropic factor. This protein, encoded by the BDNF gene, helps to stimulate neural activity and synaptic communication. This stimulation leads to enhanced learning capacities and higher thinking capabilities.
3) Prevents neurodegenerative loss
As stated above, BDNF can enhance cognition. This occurs due to neurogenesis processes, which is the growth and development of new neurons. A neuron is a cell that transmits information throughout the body by a way of electrical signals.
Unfortunately, neurons are lost throughout a lifetime due to the aging process. This phenomenon is known as neurodegeneration and can contribute to the onset of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease. However, routine exercise has shown great promise in reversing the effects of neurodegenerative loss.
A study conducted by Ang, Tai, Lo, Seet, and Soong (2010), found that sustained exercise regimens seemed to promote neurogenesis and neurodegeneration . These findings are encouraging due to the fact that physical activity not only reduces neuronal loses that are correlated with aging but also promotes new neuronal growth. These neurobiological benefits of physical exercise could be revolutionary in preventing and treating neurodegenerative diseases as there is currently no existing pharmaceutical treatment options available for neuronal loss.
4) Improved working memory
Physical activity can help stimulate the processes of encoding, storing, and retrieving information, otherwise known as memory. Exercising contributes to these processes by increasing the size of the hippocampus.
As we age, the hippocampus shrinks which leads to impaired memory. However, researchers have found that individuals who are more physically fit display larger hippocampal and medial lobe volumes. A study conducted by Erickson et al., (2011) found that aerobic exercise has a direct correlation to hippocampal perfusion and growth . As a result of this physiological response, memory is enhanced while exercising and for temporary periods following physical activity. Thus, if someone was to spend at least 30 minutes a day partaking in some sort of physical activity, optimal levels of memory recall could be achieved.
Another physiological response that benefits from physical exercise is glutamate. Glutamate, which is the most common neurotransmitter in the brain, plays a primary role in memory recall by activating N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NMDA receptor) within the hippocampus. NMDA receptor activation has been found to be associated with enhanced formation capabilities of new memories. As a result of this knowledge, it could be suggested that those who exercise more frequently perform better, on average, with memorization recall then those who do not exercise.
5) Reduces stress
Various environmental conditions can trigger the onset of biological stress. Whether you are stressed about work, school, or interpersonal relationships, stress is often associated with having a negative impact on a person’s mental and physical wellbeing.
Human beings biologically respond to stress through the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which helps with dealing with stressful events and stimuli. However, sympathetic nervous system activation cannot be sustained for long periods of time, which leads to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Parasympathetic nervous system activation triggers a series of biological processes that result in bringing the body back to a state of equilibrium (homeostasis).
Physical exercise comes into play by decreasing activity in the sympathetic nervous system, while increasing parasympathetic nervous system activity. Thus, physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, contributes to a state of biological equilibrium that results in a reduction of stress.
More specially, physical exercise has been shown to be associated with high secretion levels of endorphins from the brain (Taylor et al., 1994). Endorphins are neurotransmitters found in the pituitary gland amongst other areas of the nervous system. These neurotransmitters are responsible for the brain’s “feel good” responses and help to suppress the sympathetic nervous system, which in the end, results in improved mood and lower stress levels.
This neurobiological phenomenon is often referred to as a “runner’s high”. When physically active, our body suppresses pain. However, when finished with an exercise regimen our brain rushes high levels of endorphins throughout the nervous system, which simulates a euphoric “high”.
6) Alleviates depression and anxiety
As with stress, the endorphins that are released during physical activity can act as a non-pharmacological agent for alleviating depression and anxiety. Personally, I like to think of physical exercise as a form of meditation, only in motion. Like meditation, physical exercise boosts endorphin secretion. This boost of “feel good” chemicals within the brain can help to improve mood, create a more positive outlook on life, and act as a distraction from your worries. Due to these benefits, physical exercise can act as a healthy, non-pharmaceutical coping strategy for depression and anxiety.
7) Generates happiness
On the flipside of decreasing depressed and anxious thoughts, is the manufacturing of happiness. How does physical exercise manufacture happiness? The answer, again, lies within the production of endorphins. These feel good chemicals are essential in shifting a person’s mood from a depressed state to a happy one and physical activity is a direct pathway to making this shift happen.
8) Boosts immunity
Our immune system consists of biological structures and processes that protect us against disease. When functioning properly, our immune system protects us against pathogens by a way of antibodies that recognize and respond to antigens.
Antibodies are proteins that are produced by the immune system. These proteins are designed to combat antigens such as bacteria or viruses. Once the antibody has detected the foreign agent, it binds itself to the antigen and signals for the arrival of T-cells. These T-cells work for the immune system and are designed to find and destroy any existing antigens within the body.
Physical activity has been directly linked to producing optimal levels of antibodies to protect us against various illnesses and diseases. For example, researchers have suggested that exercise can increase antibody production by as much as 300% (Nieman and Nehlson-Cannarella, 1991). These findings are astonishing and show the importance of developing physical exercise regimens when striving for a healthier existence.
9) Elevated libido
Establishing physical activity routines can also promote a healthy libido or sex drive. For various reasons, some individuals may suffer from a low sex drive. This may cause embarrassment due to perceived stigmas attached to having a low libido and may even prevent an individual from seeking help (i.e. going to the doctor).
However, both males and females can increase their libido through simply exercising. Through routine exercising, a person can establish a healthy body image that will lead to an improved sense of self. Exercising can help to generate confidence and an improved level of self-esteem. In return, this will lead to a positive impact on neurobiological processes such as hormone equilibrium, cortisol levels, and blood flow.
For example, partaking in physical activities can help to boost testosterone levels in men and women. This constant boost in testosterone will help stimulate a person’s sex drive for each gender. What is encouraging about the link between physical activity and increased sex drive is that physical activity acts as a non-pharmacological agent. As a result, physical activity could be an intervention strategy for individuals who are uncomfortable with presenting their sexual problems to a physician. Physical activity could elevate a person’s libido without having anyone else knowing that a problem even existed.
10) Promotes healthy gene expression
Recent research has been conducted regarding the effects of exercise on gene expression. According to a study at the Lund University Diabetes Centre in Sweden (2013), exercise can have neurobiological benefits at the DNA level . More specifically, the researchers found that exercise was associated with beneficial gene methylation processes.
A person’s genes can be turned on and off and whether a particular gene is turned on or off depends on the biochemical signals they receive through a process called methylation. Gene methylation is a process that binds a methyl group containing clusters of carbon and hydrogen atoms to a gene. This methyl group signals the gene to turn on or off. What is interesting about the methylation process is that it greatly depends on a person’s lifestyle.
The researchers at Lund University studied a cohort of men who lived sedentary lifestyles. The researchers then established physical activity routines for the men to abide by for a 6-month period. These men gave cell samples at the beginning and end of the study. What the researchers found was a significant number of DNA methylation changes in the study subjects (Ronn et al., 2013).
In particular, the researchers found that genes related to diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease presented beneficial methyl group alterations after the 6-month period. These findings could have great value as this phenomenon continues to be studied and more gene-disease related combinations are discovered. Regardless, it is fascinating to think that physical activity could effect gene expression in such a powerful manner (Ronn et al., 2013).
11) Enhanced self-esteem
Self-esteem reflects a person’s perception of his or her own worth. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, “esteem” is one of the five terms used to describe the pattern that human motivations generally move through. From this understanding it can be suggested that when we behave in certain ways, our emotions will follow suit. For example, when someone exercises, they are treating their body in a respectful manner, which will ultimately lead to an increased level of self-esteem.
A study conducted by Sonstroem and Morgan (1989), examined the rationale and model in which exercise correlates with enhanced feelings of self-esteem. The researchers identified enhanced self-esteem as an empirically supported exercise outcome. The rationale for this increase in self-esteem was rooted in dimensions of competence and self-acceptance by the study subjects.
More specifically, exercising will lead to an improved physiological and psychological perception of one’s self, which is, in essence, an enhanced self-esteem.
12) Boosted energy and motivation
When feeling fatigued many people look for some sort of stimulation that will help boost energy and motivation in order to keep up with various life events. Such stimulants can include caffeine, protein bars, and naps. However, according to research, physical activity may be the most beneficial stimulate of all in regards to boosting energy levels and promoting motivation.
It may sound counterintuitive, but researcher and co-director of the University of Georgia exercise psychology laboratory Patrick O’Conner, Phd, states that expending energy in engaging in regular physical activity could lead to increased energy levels in the long run (Warner, 2006). O’Conner continues, “A lot of times when people are fatigued, the last thing they want to do is exercise but if you’re physically inactive and fatigued, being just a bit more active will help”.
So what neurobiological mechanisms contributing to this increased energy boost? The answer to this question lies within the production of norepinephrine, which is a type of neurotransmitter responsible for constricting blood vessels and increasing blood pressure and blood glucose levels. In a sense, norepinephrine acts as an adrenaline factor and is released when partaking in physical activities. As a result, regular physical activity can lead to higher levels of norepinephrine that will contribute to a boost in energy and motivation.
These boosted levels of energy and motivation can lead to better life outcomes such as improved work habits, better grades as a result of more vigilant study routines, and an ambulant social life.
13) Aid in addiction recovery
Recent research has been arising about the benefits of physical activity as a therapeutic agent for various substance abuse disorders such as alcohol and smoking addiction.
According to researchers Zschucke, Heinz, and Strohle (2012), physical exercise contributes to neurochemical alterations in individuals with substance abuse disorders. Individuals suffering from substance addiction often display dysfunctions in dopaminergic, glutamatergic, and opioidergic neurotransmission, which have been linked to craving and relapse (Zschucke, Heinz, and Strohle, 2012). Physical activity has been found to reuptake these transmitter systems and provide a crutch to individuals in the rehabilitation process.
This is encouraging news for individuals who suffer from substance addiction as physical activity is a non-pharmacological intervention strategy that promotes neurobiological changes in one of the safest ways possible.
14) Promotes healthy sleeping patterns
Sufficient sleep is a fundamental aspect to health promotion and chronic disease prevention. In 2013, 25% of the United States population reported not getting enough sleep while 10% complained of chronic insomnia (Sleep and Sleep Disorders, 2013).
According to recent findings, perhaps people should be resorting to physical exercise instead of sleeping pills when attempting to improve their sleep quality. For example, scientists at Northwestern University used a cohort study design that took a group of adults who lived sedentary lifestyles and complained of inadequate sleep quality. The researchers then grouped these individuals into either a group that exercised 20 minutes a day for four times a week or a group that continued with their sedentary behavior. What the researchers found was that the group who became physically active displayed improved sleeping patterns while the sedentary group did not (Hendrick, 2010). Additionally, the physically active group reported less feelings of tiredness throughout the day, more vitality, and vigorousness.
15) Strengthens bones and muscles
Our bones, muscles, and joints are literally what hold our lives together. Physical activity can promote healthy bones, muscles, and joints by offsetting the effects of aging.
For example, osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis in which the protective cartilage at the ends of our bones wear down over time. However, this decline in joint functioning can be reversed through physical activity as it will help to keep joints from stiffening and surrounding tissue from weakening.
On the other hand, osteoporosis is a bone disease that is characterized by a decline in bone density and mass. Physical activity can be used to offset the effects of this disease due to the improvements of balance and flexibility. As a result of these improvements, individuals are less likely to experience bone fractures and breaks.
Physical exercise can also help to build strong muscles, which, well, makes us stronger. I don’t know how to put it any other way. Building strong muscles will contribute to a more balanced, flexible, leaner sense of self and will also help to protect deeper tissue, bones, and joints from injury.
16) Improved cardiovascular functions
Numerous studies have linked physical activity with improved cardiovascular functions. As stated earlier, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise each day to promote a healthy lifestyle.
According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular diseases killed 17.5 million people worldwide in 2012. This equates to 3 out of every 10 deaths. Cardiovascular diseases refer to those involving the heart or blood vessels such as ischemic heart disease (heart attack), stroke, hypertensive heart disease, rheumatic heart disease, aortic aneurysms, and cardiomyopathy among many others, which can be caused by high blood pressure, obesity, or high blood cholesterol (Top 10 causes of death, 2012).
20 minutes of physical activity each day, each week, can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases by one third in adults (Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, 2007). Physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease due to its assistants in blood glucose control, blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, and weight loss.
I like to think of our heart as the core of life, along with the brain. As stated earlier, physical exercise can help to promote cognitive functioning within the brain. Here, it is evident that physical exercise can promote healthy heart functioning, which can decrease the risk of falling victim to the number one killer in the world.
17) Longer life
If you need some quantitative data to get you towards living a longer life then here it is. The United States -based Harvard -affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the National Cancer Institute found that 75 minutes of brisk walking per week (10.7 minutes per day) equates to an extra 1.8 years of extended life. Increase that to 150 – 299 minutes of brisk walking per week (21.4 – 42.7 minutes per day) and expect to gain an additional 3.4 years of life. Make that 450 minutes per week (about an hour a day) and expect to extend your life 4.5 years or nearly half a decade (Pasolini, 2012).
If it isn’t obvious yet, physical activity promotes optimal health. Optimal health is associated with living a longer life. I enjoy my life and want to keep experiencing it. I know time can be sparse and sometimes it seems like there just isn’t enough of it to fit in periods of physical activity. Or, perhaps fatigue has set in and working out is the last thing we want to do. But YOU and I can do it. We will find the time and energy to be physically active because our lives depend on it. I don’t know of any other inspiration greater than life itself. It is only 20 minutes a day. That’s waking up 20 minutes earlier to fit it a quick run. That’s riding your bike to work or school instead of driving or riding the bus. That’s playing a sport you love in the backyard. Be creative and have fun with it.
In summary, physical exercise has enormous benefits at the neurobiological level. In fact, the benefits seem endless especially as more research continues to be conducted. I could have written an endless list of neurobiological benefits but contemplated that only the keys points were necessary in establishing an understanding of these phenomenon.
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