One of the best things you can do for your brain is to work out often.
Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, said that your brain gets some benefits right after you work out, and that repeated exercise over many years can change your brain in a way that is good for your mental health. And Teresa Liu-Ambrose, who studies healthy aging and cognition at the University of British Columbia, said that exercise makes the brain less likely to get worse as you age as long as you keep moving.
They also told Insider that long-term exercise was linked to better brain function, growth in the memory center of the brain, and faster connections in the area of the brain that helps you focus.
Suzuki, who wrote “Healthy Brain, Happy Life” and “Good Anxiety,” said that when you exercise, your brain releases a “bubble bath” of chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine that make you feel good and reduce anxiety.
She said, “Endorphins do seem to be linked to that runner’s high, that happy, bouncy feeling.”
Suzuki says that dopamine makes you happy and also helps you focus right after you work out. This is because the part of the brain that controls attention needs dopamine to work.
Researchers have found that exercise makes new neurons grow in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is most important for memory. When these new brain cells join the rest of the hippocampus, the area gets bigger and your ability to remember things gets better.
She also said that exercise affects the size of the prefrontal cortex, which is right behind your forehead. This is because exercise makes axons, which are parts of brain cells, thicker.
“The axon is covered with a substance called myelin that acts as insulation and speeds up the electrical activity in the neuron,” Suzuki said. “The faster it goes, the more myelin it has. That’s one thing that makes people different from other animals that don’t have the same level of intelligence as we do. Our connections work faster because we have more myelin. More myelin is made when you work out.”
Suzuki said that as we age, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are also very likely to get worse. So, she said, these are the two things you lose over time. “When you work out regularly, your brain grows a big, fat, fluffy hippocampus and a big, fluffy prefrontal cortex. This happens faster the longer you do it. You’re not curing dementia or aging, but you are making these two vulnerable parts of the brain as strong and powerful as possible. So it takes longer for the effects of getting older to show up.”
Liu-Ambrose said that between the ages of 50 and 60, the hippocampus shrinks by about 1% to 2% every year, and it has been shown that exercise slows down this rate. Exercise also keeps cerebral small-vessel disease from spreading. This is a condition in which small strokes happen all over the brain and make you more likely to get dementia.
Suzuki said that, in general, exercise helps make new blood vessels, which can make strokes less likely as we age.
Liu-Ambrose also said that exercise can help the brain work better as we get older. She said that older brains often use more parts of the brain to do the same thing.
“After exercise, the brain can become more efficient, so you use less of it to do better work,” she said.
Suzuki said that it has been shown that learning a new skill is generally good for your brain. Trying new exercises may give you even more benefits for your brain. She said that when you do a new exercise, your motor cortex builds new connections.
“If you always do the same exercise, it gets boring and doesn’t challenge you in any new way. Is it better to push yourself and try something harder? It is, yes. It will make you use a bigger or different part of your brain, which is always a good thing “she told me.
She said that a fun way to do this might be to add new moves to your weight lifting routine, do cross-training, or take a kickboxing or zumba class.
The most research has been done on aerobic and cardiovascular exercise, but she said there is no “best” exercise for brain health. Any activity that makes your heart beat faster is good for your brain.
“Each drop of sweat is important. The more you exercise, the better you feel “Suzuki said.