We all know about the physical benefits of working out; we become leaner, fitter, and stronger. Our body isn’t the only thing reaping gains from exercise; our brain also benefits from a sweat session. Researchers at the University of Auckland have found 30 minutes of aerobic exercise boosts brain activity, improving memory, and thinking skills.
Previous research has explored the relationship between exercise and brain health. In a 2006 study, when healthy but sedentary adults were put through an aerobic fitness program for six months, there was a significant increase in both white matter and grey matter in the brain. White matter connects various gray matter areas (the locations of nerve cell bodies) of the brain to each other, and also carries nerve impulses between neurons. The control group, which only did stretching and toning in the same period of time, did not experience an increase in brain volume.
In the new study, published in Experimental Brain Research, scientists sought to explore how aerobic exercise enhances neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections) and what areas of the brain benefit from physical activity. A total of 10 young, healthy adults were asked to do 30 minutes of moderate cycling on a stationary bike, tailored to the aerobic fitness levels of each participant.
After the workout, the researchers found the motor cortex, where the nerve impulses originate that start voluntary muscle activity, had less gamma — aminobutyric acid, or GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. GABA plays an important role in regulating the brain’s capacity to undergo change or neuroplasticity.
The researchers believe this is how exercise promotes neuroplasticity, which supports their original hypothesis: “One possible mechanism is through effects on primary motor cortex (M1) function via down-regulation of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).”
In other words, a 30-minute moderately intense aerobic workout can immediately reduce GABA in the brain. The researchers believe this could benefit stroke victims by allowing them to coordinate movement.
Winston D. Byblow and Ronan A. Mooney of the University of Auckland, corresponding authors of the study, said: “Our findings may have implications for individuals after stroke, where GABA is a promising target for promoting neuroplasticity to promote recovery of motor function.”
They do admit older or clinical populations may struggle with certain exercise intensities due to functional limitations. However, other research has found exercise could slow down brain atrophy, the loss of brain volume. Typically, we start losing it at about age 30, with the hippocampus being the most affected. This can affect cognitive health, memory, and even spur dementia.
A 2011 study in PNAS found exercise training increases the size of the hippocampus — believed to be the center of emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system — and improves memory. Moderate exercise in healthy older adults helped them gain one to two percent volume in the hippocampus area. This is equal to reversing brain aging by about two years. Moreover, there were gains in spatial memory — responsible for recording information about one’s environment and spatial orientation.
It seems what’s good for our body, is also good for the brain.
Source: Mooney RA, Coxon JP, Cirillo J et al. Acute aerobic exercise modulates primary motor cortex inhibition. Experimental Brain Research. 2016.
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