Exercise-Induced Neuroplasticity - Creating New Neural Pathways
Published: 13 August 2017
Published: 13 August 2017
The brain is capable of neurogenesis, especially in the hippocampus and cerebral ventricles, and – yes! – exercise stimulates this growth. In a way, exercise signals cells to start acting like stem cells, capable of new growth. In addition, exercise increases the brain’s ‘baseline activity’ which also stimulates cellular growth.
But, the brain doesn’t need new growth in order to stimulate better cognition; the brain is incredibly underutilised. In other words, we don’t operate at anything close to max capacity.
And that means that the brain can always find ways to overcome obstacles which life throws into its way (obstacles like a stroke or brain injury or even the effects of ageing) through something called plasticity.
What is plasticity? When specific pathways in the brain are blocked or damaged, the brain is capable of utilising alternate means of circumventing those blockages which results in the establishment of new pathways, as well as increasing the brain’s myelin sheathing, thus enhancing transmission speed of electrical impulses and improving its function.
Think of it this way: Exercise sets into motion an interactive cascade of growth factor that has the net effect of stimulating plasticity, enhancing cognitive function . . . [and] stimulating neurogenesis (Wilcox et al. 2009).
Amazingly, research has found that even those who have already developed symptoms of dementia can benefit from exercise to improve cognitive function and allow them to be better able to perform activities of daily living (ADL).
As spectacularly headlined online, studies show that regular exercise can stop brain shrinkage, even if you “have dementia in your genetic pool” (Macrae 2014). In one fascinating study, seniors in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s who exercised at least three times a week, even with exercise as mundane as swimming, cycling, or walking, showed a dramatic increase in brain activity.
There are dozens, if not hundreds, of studies cited in systematic reviews (including those done by the Cochrane Library, the gold standard of research) that support the idea that good old fashion, regular aerobic training has been shown to improve many aspects of cognitive function: e.g. memory, decision making, problem solving and attention.
But what about other kinds of exercise? Does exercise have to be aerobic? Does it have to be regular?
Resistance exercise has long been seen as the lowly stepsister of aerobic exercise. Well, it may not get invited to the ball but it isn’t sitting home crying over it!
Specific resistance exercises have been found to combat cognitive decline among the senior set. Weight training, even as infrequently as once or twice a week, has been shown to improve something called “executive function” in seniors.
Executive functions are functions of the brain. For instance,
All of these are executive functions and they are the core foundational elements of reasoning, planning and creative problem solving. And the latest research supports the use of weight training, with machines or free weights, as a way to improve these functions.
But strength training doesn’t just make you think faster. It may just make your day brighter. Exercising skeletal muscles help the body purge a protein associated with depression. Look at the body’s ability to detoxify itself during periods of stress. Muscles which are consistently exercised even show the ability to mobilise enzymes to join the fight against depression.
As just mentioned, the act of performing physical exercise can improve brain health. But all exercise is not created equally. Research has shown performing dual tasks (a cognitive task coupled with a physical task) may be just the ticket when working out to improve cognition. Instead of just “exercising”, try these Brain Gym ideas:
No matter how beneficial exercise is, it does nothing if people do not want to do it. Instead of thinking of exercise as a limited category (swimming, running, walking, biking), it’s time to start looking at a wider arena.
Like to dance? Consider taking up Cuban-style salsa (known as Rueda) or New England contradance, both dance styles where the entire room of people dance together. Do you enjoy martial arts? Then consider taking up Ai Chi, known as flowing aquatic energy, a form of martial arts performed in warm water. Or Yoga. Or circus-style gymnastics. The brain is wide-open to new possibilities… it just needs your body to take the lead.
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Andrea Salzman, MS, PT graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a Master’s degree in physical therapy in 1992. Over the last two decades, she has held numerous prominent leadership roles in the physical therapy field, with a heavy emphasis on academic writing and administrative functions. Between 1995 and 1998, Salzman served as the Editor-in-Chief of an American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) journal. In 2010, Salzman received one of the highest honors given to a physical therapist from the American Physical Therapy Association, the Judy Cirullo Leadership Award. Between 2012 and the present, Salzman has written 12 physical therapy courses for Care2Learn, Relias Learning and reviewed over 100 other course offerings. Currently, Salzman continues in her writing, leadership and administrative roles at Aquatic Therapy University and 10K Health. See Educator Profile