Benefits of physical exercise

Neurobiological effects of physical exercise

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The neurobiological effects of physical exercise are numerous and involve a wide range of interrelated effects on brain structure, brain function, and cognition. A large body of research in humans has demonstrated that consistent aerobic exercise (e.g., 30 minutes every day) induces persistent beneficial behavioral and neural plasticity as well as healthy alterations in gene expression in the brain; some of these long-term effects include: increased neuron growth, increased neurological activity, improved stress coping, enhanced cognitive control of behavior, improved memory, and structural and functional improvements in brain structures and pathways associated with cognitive control.

People who regularly participate in aerobic exercise have greater scores on neuropsychological function and performance tests that measure certain cognitive functions, such as attentional and inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility, working memory and information processing speed. Examples of aerobic exercise that produce these changes are running, jogging, brisk walking, swimming, and cycling.

Aerobic exercise is also a potent long-term antidepressant; consistent exercise has also been shown to produce general improvements in mood and self-esteem in humans.

Neuroplasticity is essentially the ability of neurons in the brain to adapt over time, and most often occurs in response to repeated exposure to stimuli. Adult neurogenesis is the postnatal (after-birth) growth of new neurons, a beneficial form of neuroplasticity. Aerobic exercise promotes adult neurogenesis by increasing the production of neurotrophic factors (compounds which promote the growth or survival of neurons). Consistent aerobic exercise over a period of several months induces marked clinically significant improvements in executive function, cognitive control of behavior, and increased gray matter volume in multiple brain regions. The prefrontal cortex, caudate nucleus, and anterior cingulate cortex are among the most significant brain structures in the dopamine and norepinephrine systems that give rise to cognitive control.

Exercise-induced neurogenesis (i.e., the increases in gray matter volume) in the hippocampus is associated with measurable improvements in spatial memory. Higher physical fitness scores are associated with better executive function, faster processing speed, and greater volume of the hippocampus. Long-term aerobic exercise is also associated with persistent beneficial epigenetic changes that result in improved stress coping, improved cognitive function, and increased neuronal activity.

Galina Toktalieva

Kyrgyzstan-born author residing in Graz, Austria

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