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Physical Activity as Brain Food


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.