exercise brain health

Exercising your brain for optimal cognition

Cognition, or thinking skills, are the mental processes our brain performs so we can acquire knowledge, understand and interact with the world around us. This includes our ability to focus, remember, plan, and problem solve. We generally use these skills automatically, and often don’t notice them until they aren’t working as well as we’d like. Many factors such as fatigue, stress and illness can impact how sharp our thinking skills are, but did you know that physical exercise can improve them? That’s right, exercise can help supercharge your thinking skills so you can perform better physically and mentally on a daily basis.

How can moving my body change my brain and improve my thinking skills?

Physical exercise can enhance our thinking skills through the powerful effects it has on our brain. Science shows that exercise can increase blood flow to the brain, make our brain cells more active, strengthen connections between different brain regions and even make areas of the brain bigger! But not all exercise is created equal.

Different intensities and types of exercise affect our thinking skills in different ways. The three most researched thinking skills when looking at the impact of exercise are our attention, problem solving and memory. We need these skills to be at their best so we can succeed in our work, study or relationships. So, understanding the right ‘exercise dose’ is very important.

Scatter brain scenario

Imagine it’s 3pm, you’re trying to listen to a lecture, read a book, or finish that spreadsheet, but your mind keeps drifting to other things; what to have for dinner, what’s happening on Instagram, why’s that dog barking… We all struggle with focus at some point and exercise could be your superpower to help overcome this.

The frontal lobe (the part of the brain sitting just under your forehead), can be thought of as the control centre of our brain. It is responsible for controlling our ability to focus on what we need to do, ignore distractions, change from one task to another, as well as plan and problem solve. Physical exercise affects our frontal lobe and its functions in many ways. Science shows that just 5-20 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (like a brisk walk, slow jog, leisurely cycle or group sport), can have an immediate positive effect on our ability to concentrate. Just make sure to keep it brief because getting too worn out can make it harder to concentrate in the short term. So next time you’re battling distraction, try a gentle block run and come back to it with a sharper focus. If you want a bigger bang for your buck though do it frequently as although a single exercise session can improve our thinking skills, the biggest effects on our brain occur when we exercise regularly.

The frontal lobe is very sensitive to the effects of exercise, in particular moderate-vigorous intensity exercise (like running, fast cycling, dancing), or anything that makes you huff and puff to the point where it becomes slightly difficult to have a conversation. When we exercise at these intensities, our body breaks down glucose as its primary source of energy, through a process called glycolysis. During glycolysis, a by-product called lactate is released into the bloodstream. Lactate (not lactic acid) is important, as it enters the brain and initiates a cascade of events that leads to the release of neurochemicals and growth hormones responsible for neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is an exciting process where the brain actually re-wires to create new messaging pathways that can improve our thinking ability. The neurochemicals released during this more intense type of exercise also helps strengthen and protect our brain cells and can lead to the growth of new brain cells.

Numerous studies have shown that people who exercise regularly have greater activation in the frontal lobe and perform better at the thinking tasks controlled by this region of the brain.

Head scratching scenario

Imagine these scenarios:

You have an important final exam in a few days;
You decide to take up your childhood dream of guitar lessons;
You realise you’ve been forgetting things more often than you did a few years ago.

Another thinking skill which can be powerfully improved by moderate-vigorous intensity aerobic exercise is our memory, a skill that is fundamental for us to thrive in our work, study and everyday life. The hippocampus, a small region deep within the temporal lobes of the brain, is particularly sensitive to the effects of exercise and some of the major functions of the hippocampus are… You guessed it, learning new skills and information and creating new memories. Studies have shown that exercising at these higher intensities, three times a week for 12-weeks can improve the size of the hippocampus, make the cells in the hippocampus healthier and make the connection between the hippocampus and other areas of the brain stronger.

So, if you want optimise your thinking skills or are feeling fuzzy, unfocused, or forgetful – get moving!

Where to from here?

Hopefully we’ve convinced you that exercise can have just as big an impact on your mind as it can on your body. But we understand that starting an exercise routine, or maintaining one, isn’t always easy. If you are keen to get moving and reap these benefits but aren’t quite sure where to start, check out our blog “Creating Healthy Habits” for some helpful hints and chat to your local accredited exercise professional. You can find one near you by clicking here.

Written by Edouard Kayayan (Accredited Exercise Physiologist at BrainPark, Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University) and Dr Karyn Richardson (Research Fellow at  BrainPark, Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, Monash University)