The brain is capable of producing new neurons. This is because of its neuroplasticity – its ability to continuously regenerate itself. When a person learns a new skill, interconnected neural circuits form and connect with each other through different points of contact. Over time, if the person persists in the learning of that skill, the synaptic communication between the neurons will be strengthened.
A study conducted by Schoenfeld et al. (2013) articulates how exercise promotes the growth of neurons in the ventral hippocampus, so people who exercise tend to be able to handle stress better. So, what is the hippocampus, exactly? The hippocampus is a deep part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and it seems to be activated during physical activity. A hippocampus of a person who lives a sedentary lifestyle consists of younger neurons. We can think of these as neurons as ‘untrained.’ Younger neurons, are by nature, easily excitable, and ‘fire’ easily when confronted with a minor stressor. This, in turn, can make situations, decisions and even thoughts appear more stressful, and make us feel more anxious than they should.
How do we resolve this?
Exercise is part of the equation, to strengthen healthy neural connections in the hippocampus. The excitability of neurons evolved from the basic fight-or-flight response we all have. For example, how would your brain respond if you were walking and encountered a grizzly bear? The flood of hormones and neurotransmitters would prepare your body to flee from the grizzly or fight it. This response enables us to decide whether we should physically engage in a situation or escape from a perceived threat.
Wendy Suzuki is a neuroscientist at New York University, and also a leading global expert on neuroplasticity. Her book “Healthy Brain, Happy Life” examines the connection between brain health and overall health. In Schoenfeld et al.’s study, it was found that a majority of neural creation is located in the ventral part of the hippocampus, which is associated with emotional processing. This means that those who frequently exercised were more equipped to manage stress and control their emotions better.
Exercise, as a habitual practice, enables reprogramming of the brain. Not all exercises have the same beneficial health outcomes. Each exercise activates a different part of the body and brain, so there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ type of activity or exercise plan. Much of the scientific community agrees that walking is one of the best and most accessible forms of physical activity, and gentle on the joints. If you are looking to target and enhance a specific element of brain health through exercise, the following list may come in handy:
- For brain fog and concentration: Yoga, tai chi, aerobic classes;
- For memory: aerobics, walking, and cycling;
- To improve blood circulation: cardio activities (walking, riding a bicycle, running, swimming, kickboxing, skipping rope and skiing);
- For stress and anxiety: yoga;
- And for depression: aerobic and resistance training