The Benefits of Physical Activity On The Brain
We know that exercise is important for our physical health, but did you know that it also benefits the brain? Research has found that certain types of exercise increase the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein which helps neurons grow and survive, as well as aids in the creation of new connections in the brain (i.e. synapses). This helps explain the links that researchers have found between exercise and improvements in learning and memory, as learning occurs through changes in synapses and the activity of neurons. Further support for the association between exercise and memory and learning comes from studies showing that the hippocampus (a key brain area for memory) sees increased BDNF after exercise and grows larger in volume (i.e. there is an increase in neurons that are present). This is important as the hippocampus tends to shrink as we age which leads to impaired memory and puts us at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Thus, by exercising we can help maintain our hippocampal size, thereby reducing our risk of AD and/or slowing down the progression of the disease.
Note: this does not mean that exercise is a cure for AD or that if you regularly exercise you will not get AD.
Another way that exercise benefits us is by increasing frontal lobe activity given that the motor cortex is located in the back part of the frontal lobe. Increased frontal lobe activity is likely why research has shown links between exercise and improved executive functioning (EF). EF refers to important cognitive skills such as planning, organizing, working memory and self-regulation. The frontal lobe acts as a brake pedal for certain brain regions such as the limbic system (which plays a role in the fight-or-flight response, emotional responses and in bottom-up attentional processes). As discussed in our blog post about the stressed brain, the frontal lobe and limbic system are on either side of a scale and stress shifts which system is in charge. Since exercise increases frontal lobe activity, it can help shift the scales so that the limbic system is no longer in charge.
What type of physical activity is recommended for the brain?
While any physical activity is beneficial for you, the research suggests that aerobic exercises (e.g., cycling, swimming, walking) are most strongly associated with the cognitive benefits discussed above. This may be because aerobic exercises increase blood flow which lead to increased oxygen flow to the brain. This is not to say that anaerobic activities (e.g., weight training, yoga, pilates) have no benefits or are bad for you. You can certainly continue engaging in these sorts of activities, but try to regularly add in some aerobic exercises into your routine as well.
How does BrainAhead help get you moving?
Our 12-week Brain Bootcamp program contains 10-minute movement-based videos that are easy to use individually or in a large classroom. Think of it as bootcamp for brains! Children are prompted to follow our animated characters Belle and Tex as they do a variety of activities including:
- cross crawl movements
- gross and fine motor movements
- movements to a beat
- joint compressions
- and balancing.
Also included in your BrainAhead subscription is our Physical Literacy lesson plan. This plan is designed for larger spaces and is great to use with children who need to work on foundational movement skills such as coordination, balance and agility. The best part is that the activities require little set up and only take 10-15 minutes to complete!
Tips to Get Moving This Holiday Season
The holidays are a busy time so the best ways to get moving are ones that can easily be incorporated into your day. We recommend getting your family and friends involved too! Movement is always more fun with others around. Below are some ideas and tips to get you and your loved ones moving!
- Go for a walk. One of the easiest aerobic exercises to incorporate into your day is walking. Make a game of it by playing I-Spy or pointing out interesting things you see. If there is bad weather and you want to stay indoors, take your children with you when going shopping, whether that be at the grocery store or the mall. It’s a bonus if you can find a neighbourhood with lots of holiday lights and make a short trip out of it!
- Commercial break exercises. Get off the couch during commercial breaks and do some jumping jacks or march on the spot. When using your cellphone or computer there are no commercial breaks, so set a timer to get up every 20-30 minutes and have a short movement break (this is also good for your eyes!)
- Brain Bootcamp or Physical Literacy. As an educator, you can assign a BrainAhead unit to your students over the winter break, or send home some instructions for activities found in the Physical Literacy lesson plan. Not sure where to find these? Take a look at our Knowledge Base for help. By encouraging brain activation over the holidays, your students may have less difficulty getting back into their learning groove once school begins again.
- Winter activities. If possible, take advantage of the season and the great outdoors! Some activities that are fun and will get your heart rate up are hiking, snowshoeing, snowboarding, skiing and ice skating. Even going sledding can be excellent exercise if you are running up the hill multiple times.