How does exercise affect the brain?

Industrialization brought revolutionary technological innovations like trains, cars, and airplanes, which made our lives easier. Technology quickened the production lines and output of goods and decreased the number of active jobs for a rising middle class. With the automation of the industry, a more sedentary lifestyle arose, along with a rapid increase in cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

The rise of blue and white collar jobs in factories also replaced small-scale farming and traditional labor-intensive work. Meanwhile, populations moved into urbanized centers by the thousands into smaller residences near one another, with proximity to their work. Markets and supermarkets also made food accessible to people who could no longer afford to raise cattle and produce their own food. The way people spend their leisure time also changed when television became a pastime. People consuming around 4 and 5 hours of daily screen time. All of this meant that in today’s developed regions, the standard of living dramatically increased. Without physical effort, one could survive and even earn money, have fun, and eat well.

For many people’s income, everything can be done from their couch, or with little physical effort. This includes paying the bills, buying clothing and groceries, enjoying vacation days, and catching up with friends. According to the World Health Organization (2010), more than 50% of the world population lives in an urban area today.

Given the current demographic exponential growth worldwide, it is predicted that by 2050, around 70% of the global population will be living in cities. What does this mean for global health? Widespread physical inactivity is a cause for concern.

Ancient Greece glorified the body with sporting rituals and competition, so much so that the Olympic Games, held in honor of Zeus, could take place. Before then, there was no such thing as marathons or sport-oriented societies. The “survival of the fittest” prevailed as a foundation of human evolution. In other words, you were either fit or, you died.

Western cultures have vacillated between extremes, to have shifted from “fitness-for-survival,” to “fitness-for-entertainment” to “fitness as a privilege.” So how do we start thinking about more realistic and accessible ways to incorporate physical effort into our lives? We are not genetically programmed to live in a state of idleness and lethargy. And if we do, our brains pay a high price, both in the short and long term. You may know already, that exercise is good for you, but do you know how it affects the brain?

People exercise for different reasons, but many people stay fit to prevent serious health conditions. These conditions include heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and stroke. Other people work out primarily to lose weight. Only a few people exercise with the intent to improve their brain functioning.

Exercise improves cognitive functioning, mental health, and memory; it also hinders the development of certain neurological conditions. There are three dominant neuroscientific theories that explain how physical activity positively impacts cognition.

1. While exercising, oxygen saturation and angiogenesis (blood vessel growth) occur in areas of the brain associated with rational thinking and as well as social, physical, and intellectual performance.

2. Exercise drops stress hormones and increases the number of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which are known to accelerate information processing.

3. Exercise upregulates neurotrophins (brain-derived neurotrophic factor, insulin-like growth factor, and basic fibroblast growth factor). These support the survival and differentiation of neurons in the developing brain, dendritic branching, and synaptic machinery in the adult brain (ibid).

Leave a Comment