“A” is for active: Exercise and your brain

Kate Williams
18 July 2013

Above: Image © adventtr, iStockphoto.com

Did you know? Oxygen is extremely important for brain health. Your brain makes up only 2% of your total body weight, but requires 20-25% of your body’s oxygen supply!

Physical activity builds a strong heart, maintains healthy lungs, and strengthens muscles. But did you know it also has huge benefits for your brain?

Several scientific studies have examined the relationship between regular aerobic exercise (jogging, gym class), a good level of fitness (endurance, muscle strength, flexibility), and academic performance. They reveal that teens who engage in regular physical activity score higher on a number of academic measures, including GPA, math aptitude, reading skills, standardized tests, and overall grades. Researchers attribute these academic improvements to better concentration, memory, and attention span.

But how exactly does physical activity improve mental abilities?

For one thing, physical activity increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain, keeping neurons (brain cells) alert and functioning. Second, exercise can increase brain plasticity, which is the ability of your brain to adapt and change with experience. Plasticity is key for learning and forming new memories. Exercise may increase plasticity by causing new neurons to be formed in the hippocampus, a part of the brain important for learning and memory. Additionally, exercise can increase the number of neurotrophins and neurotransmitters in your brain. These two types of molecules help new neurons establish and maintain connections with other neurons.

Did you know? The human brain contains approximately 85 billion neurons. A single neuron can make contact with thousands of others, meaning there are trillions of connections in your brain!So how much exercise is enough? According to Health Canada, young people between the ages of 12 and 17 should be getting a minimum of one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. This can be achieved by joining a sports team or signing up for a yoga, hip hop, or kickboxing class. But there are other easy ways to incorporate physical activity into your everyday routine. It can be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking your dog, dancing around the house to your favourite music, or shoveling snow.

The most important thing is to find something you enjoy, so you’ll keep doing it. The benefits of exercise aren’t achieved overnight. So stay active to ensure a healthy body and mind!


Science websites

The Blood Supply of the Brain (Neuroscience For Kids, Eric H. Chudler, University of Washington) The Human Brain: Exercise (The Franklin Institute) The Human Brain: Micronutrients (The Franklin Institute)

Government websites

Physical Activity Tips for Youth (12-17 years) (Public Health Agency of Canada)

Scholarly articles

Azevedo FAC et al. 2009. Equal numbers of neuronal and nonneuronal cells make the human brain an isometrically scaled-up primate brain. The Journal of Comparative Neurology. 513(5): 532-541. Biddle SJ, Asare M. 2011. Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: a review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 45(11): 886-895. Coe DP et al. 2012. Health-related fitness and academic achievement in middle school students. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 52(6):654-660. Rhyu IJ et al. 2010. Effects of aerobic exercise training on cognitive function and cortical vascularity in monkeys. Neuroscience. 167(4):1239-1248. Singh A et al. 2012. Physical Activity and Performance at School: A Systematic Review of the Literature Including a Methodological Quality Assessment. The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. 166(1):49-55. Van Praag, P. 2008. Neurogenesis and Exercise: Past and Future Directions. Neuromolecular Medicine. 10(2):128-140.

Kate Williams

Kate Williams is currently working on her PhD in Neuroscience at McMaster University.  Her research focuses on how the brain changes during development and aging.  In her spare time she enjoys traveling, reading, running, and playing softball.

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