Beyond what we eat, the way we move provides important nourishment and
protection for the brain.
I am a Neurologist. I am a Sports Neurologist. And I am a Pain Medicine
specialist. It’s complicated, but all three are intimately related.
I frequently explain to patients that see me for a “Pain Management”
consultation that part of my motivation for successfully treating their
pain is rooted in my knowledge of the brain and the benefits of sport
and exercise. I want them out of pain so they can exercise. And I want
them to exercise because it’s great for their brain.
For decades, people have viewed exercise solely as a means of improving
the function and aesthetic of the body, below the neck. The motivation
may be to see tangible results in the abdomen, arms, legs, or backside,
and many assume that working out will eventually produce the outcomes
they desire. When that evidence doesn't present itself quickly enough
or at all, exercise routines are often discarded and forgotten. But I
am here to tell you that even if you can't see it, any amount of exercise
has a hugely positive impact on your brain… and that alone should
matter enough to keep doing it.
Now, you cannot see your brain, so you have no way to judge whether your
efforts to improve its function are "working." People think
of the term "brain food" as something that is consumed as a
means of enhancing the brain's performance. Whether it's foods
that are touted to better a person's brain health, or crossword puzzles
and "brain games" to sharpen the mind, it's tough to know
that it's "working." And because there are no perceived
outward signs that it is or that it matters, the efforts are often ditched
in search of a more gratifying and conspicuous reward.
Until recently, the belief in the scientific community was that the brain
could not grow after reaching adulthood. That idea has been debunked by
a bevy of research that has demonstrated it isn't true. It
is possible for the brain to grow, no matter a person's age. How much
it grows or how well, studies are showing, depends significantly on exercise.
As with many findings in science, it is not fully known yet why exercise
works so well on the brain. Sometimes, the answer comes later than the
discovery. There is a belief that the connection between exercise and
brain growth was part of the evolutionary process. The question is: What
type of exercise is most beneficial for the brain?
It is now the consensus that aerobic exercise has the most significant
positive impact on brain health. Whether it strengthens the connections
between neurons or grows new ones, the benefit seems clear. Older adults
engage in aerobic exercise, and the brain's tissues and cells regenerate
– like a proverbial fountain of youth.
There are several types of aerobic exercise, from riding a stationary bicycle
to walking, swimming, or jogging. All have their benefits. However, research
is now showing that a second element needs to be added to aerobic exercise.
That added element that benefits the brain is aerobic exercise that challenges
the cognitive ability of the brain. That means that the workout is more
than just walking on a treadmill and listening to music on headphones.
It must be challenging. This part relates back to the theory about how
the brain expanded during evolution. As our human ancestors began standing
up on two legs instead of all fours, specific changes occurred. They were
able to move around more and cover a greater range of territory. This
walking was their aerobic exercise that led to brain growth. It also included
a second part. That was the increase in cognitive ability. The ability
to walk on two legs required maintenance of balance and awareness of the
environment. Humans had to remember where they were and how to get back
home. They took in all their surroundings and were forced to make their
brains work in ways they hadn't needed to before. All of this produced
a larger and more productive brain.
Today we might walk on a different path or choose to explore a new part
of our environment. That new walk requires us to pay attention to what
we are doing to avoid falling or getting lost. In addition to the nourishing
benefits of aerobic exercise on the walk, the activity requires the brain
to work harder.
As scientists continue to explore the reasons that exercise benefits the
brain, the message is clear. Aerobic exercise tied with cognitive challenges
is essential to maintaining and increasing brain function. It's exercise
as brain food, and even though you may not be able to see its benefits
manifested on your body, it's doing great work above your neck.