Have you ever heard the expression,”Your brain is a muscle”? Well, it isn’t really true from a literal standpoint (it’s technically an organ), however it DOES require exercise in order to stay strong and keep on developing healthily. Mental exercise can come from activities such as reading, creative writing, solving math equations, crossword puzzles and so on. As beneficial these types of exercises can be for your mental health and as crucial as they are for optimizing your cognition, they are not the only training your thinking “muscle” needs.
Actual physical exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function in both the SHORT TERM and LONG TERM!
If you’ve ever started off the day at they gym, jogging or walking outside or doing some morning yoga you may already be familiar with the powers of a solid workout. It can boost your mood and increase your focus on tasks that lie in the day ahead. And not only that, but so long as you’re not overtaxing your body and it’s not your first workout ever (you may notice the need for more sleep or a short nap in the beginning stages of a workout routine) that you have more sustained energy throughout the day.
Exercise leads to an increase in the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which has been shown to increase learning and memory, improve cell signaling and even reverse the negative affects of Alzheimer’s disease. You can read more about that here.
To get all sciency on you for a sec, it works like this… exercise induces FNDC5 (and the expression of FNDC5 is regulated by PGC-1α), which is secreted as a substance called irising in the blood which then induces BDNF in the hippocampus and voilà! You’ve got yourself some good old fashioned nueroprotection!
So, some of the short term benefits of exercise are:
…and all of this will lead to an increase in productivity!
In addition to all these benefits, the long term effects of exercise on the brain are incredible as well. Physical activity helps significantly with preventing AND treating nuerologic diseases. Regular physical exercise has been shown to have such positive effects on brain health that it’s been implemented in the treatment of Multiple Sclerosis (you can check out a few of the studies conducted on this subject here.. 1, 2), a progressive and debilitating disease.
As stated earlier, physical activity has also been shown to up-regulate hippocampal BDNF. And this increase in BDNF may play an important role in mood states, learning and memory to lessen the decline in cognitive function associated with MS. The study referenced in link ” looks at the differences between MS patients who were more active and physically fit and those who more sedentary. In additton to performing better on cognition tests, the study found the following:
“Physically fit MS patients had fewer lesions compared to those who weren’t as fit and the lesions they did have tended to be smaller”
In addition to these studies we have some pretty strong anecdotal evidence of exercise’s impact on MS. Recently, a Danish woman who had been diagnosed with MS completed the absolutely astonishing feat of running 366 marathons in a total of 365 days. But that’s not it… she now says she has no symptoms of MS. Now, her claim isn’t exactly scientific, and it’s surely counterintuitive, but the fact that she is even still alive after that is almost unbelievable in itself. So if she’s still walking around and if she says she’s free of symptoms I believe her! That’s not to say that you should go out and attempt a marathon tomorrow, but it does speak to the positive effects of exercise. You can read a little more about the story here.
It seems that exercise exposure enhances your brain’s resistance to stress, leading to more resilience when it comes to some of the underlying causes of conditions like MS and Alzheimer’s. If physical exercise can have this much of a protective effect on those with degenerative nuerologic disease then it is definitely something you should be including in your lifestyle, whether your goal is to optimize concentration or to just prevent diseases like MS, Alzheimer’s or dementia in general.
So get exercising! Get outside and catch some sunshine, get in the gym and hit the eliptical or head to your garage and pump some iron… do whatever you need to do to get your muscles moving. Your brain will thank you and you productivity will skyrocket!