April 7, 2020

Exercise for the Brain

Being a diabetic you probably know… especially if you are following the Beating Diabetes diet… that regular exercise is good for you.

In fact, 30 minutes a day of exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, gardening and similar activities, can actively help you control your diabetes.

The benefits of these kinds of moderate exercise include:

  • Lowering your blood glucose levels as you expend energy through exercise;
  • Improving insulin resistance so that it is easier for glucose to get into your muscle cells;
  • Reducing your weight, overweight being one of the triggers for the onset of diabetes;
  • Building and toning muscles so that more glucose from your digestive system is used;
  • Lowering your risks of heart disease and strokes which diabetes can increase dramatically;
  • Improving the circulation of your blood and delivering glucose and insulin more efficiently to where they are needed;
  • Reducing stress, a major aggravator of diabetes, and so enhancing the quality of your life.

But there is another benefit that is seldom mentioned… exercise can improve the functioning of your brain and improve your cognitive abilities.

Indeed exercise is the most scientifically proven enhancer of your brain.

How exercise boosts the brain

Exercise increases the blood flow to the brain, delivering the extra oxygen and nutrients which the brain requires to function. This confers a variety of benefits on the functioning of your brain, viz:

  1. Improved executive functions
  2. Improved focus
  3. Increased cognitive flexibility
  4. Improved willpower
  5. Enhanced long-term memory
  6. Faster thinking
  7. Reduced brain atrophy
  8. Increased in new brain cells
  9. Reduced risk of stroke
  10. Lowered risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  11. Improved academic performance

[1] Improved executive functions

Executive functions are higher level brain skills. They include things such as control over impulses, attention span, task and goal management, working memory capacity and so on… all skills that are important for planning, organising, problem solving etc.

A study published in the US National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health) in February 2013 Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations found ample evidence that doing aerobic exercises regularly enables healthy people to optimize a range of executive functions.

A meta-analysis (a scientific review of multiple studies) published in March 2003 in the same media as Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults examined the results of 18 different papers on how the brains of older people are affected by regular exercise. All participants in the studies were healthy but led sedentary lifestyles. Fitness training was found to have robust benefits for various aspects of cognition, with executive-control processes benefiting the most.

[2] Improved focus

Continuous interruptions from flashing mobile phones, bleeping news feeds and email messages and so on are making concentrating on a single task increasingly difficult these days. But exercise can develop our skill to ignore distractions and apply ourselves to the task in hand.

A study titled Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging published in March 2004 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that physically fit older people have better control over their ability to focus their attention (as measured by a difficult cognitive task).

[3] Increased cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. It is a measure of executive function.

Aerobic exercise enhances cognitive flexibility, a study published in June 2009 in the US National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health), demonstrated that regular aerobic exercise substantially enhances this enviable skill.

The subjects were 91 healthy adults who were divided into three groups. Over 10 weeks, one group undertook minimal aerobic exercises (<2 days a week), another group moderate exercises (3- 4 days a week), and the third group participated in high aerobic exercises (5-7 days a week).

After 10 weeks the participants were tested for memory, mental speed, reaction time, attention, and cognitive flexibility. Analysis of the results showed clearly that increasing the frequency of aerobic activity enhanced cognitive performance, in particular cognitive flexibility.

[4] Improved willpower

We use our willpower to stay on track for personal and professional goals, avoid temptation and adhere to healthy habits. Exercise can increase your willpower.

A meta-analysis published in 2013 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at several groups of people… children, adolescents, and adults up to the age of 35. The researchers found that short bouts of exercise had a significant affect across all age groups in various areas of executive function, including willpower.

[5] Enhanced long-term memory

Research suggests that exercise is unlikely to improve short-term memory, ie the information in your head that is currently being processed, or the effect (if any) is short-lived.

Long-term memory refers to the storage of information over an extended period, anything from a few hours to several decades. A link between exercise and improved long-term memory has been established in various studies.

Aerobic Exercise and Neurocognitive Performance: a Meta-Analytic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials, published in the US National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health) in March 2010, concluded that aerobic exercise training is associated with modest improvements in attention and processing speed, executive function, and long-term memory.

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Another study, published recently in Current Biology, found that 35 minutes of interval exercise on a bike strengthens long-term memory. Timing however is crucial.

The memory of those who exercise four hours after learning is enhanced significantly. But those who exercise immediately after learning experience no improvement.

In another study Effects of acute exercise on long-term memory, published in the US National Library of Medicine (National Institutes of Health) in December 2011, participants were divided into three groups. Each group had to recall as much information as possible from two paragraphs.

The first group received the information after exercise, the second before exercise, and the last completed no exercise. The exercise consisted of 30 minutes on a cycle ergometer.

The group that was exposed to exercise before being given the information performed significantly better at recall than the others.

Resistance exercise is any form of exercise that forces your skeletal muscles (not the involuntary muscles of your heart, lungs, etc.) to contract, eg weight-lifting.

Episodic memory is the memory of past personal experiences that occurred at a particular time and place.

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