You’ve probably noticed that working out leaves you feeling physically and mentally refreshed, even if it’s hard to get started.
But did you know that regular aerobic exercise can improve your cognitive functioning?
Why exercise is good for your brain
To stay in top condition, your brain needs to continually generate new cells.
This is known as “neurogenesis.” Healthy brain cells are necessary for memory and critical thinking.
In short, neurogenesis is essential for everyday cognitive functioning.
It doesn’t matter how old you are; it’s possible to resculpt your brain at any age.
Until the 1990s, scientists were unsure whether our neural pathways were fixed from childhood.
Then, thanks to a landmark study with non-human primates in 1998, neuroscientists revised their opinion.
The principle of neuroplasticity – the notion that we can lay down new neural pathways throughout life – is now accepted as fact in psychology and neuroscience.
Recent studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise facilitates neurogenesis, thereby contributing to brain health.
The role of cathepsin B in exercise and memory
They asked a sample of healthy young men and women to run on a treadmill for at least an hour, three times per week.
The results were clear – the runners obtained higher scores on tests of thinking and memory, suggesting enhanced neurogenesis.
So, how exactly does running boost brainpower?
When muscles contract, they release various substances into the body.
The researchers believed that one or more of these substances could travel to the brain via the bloodstream, directly affecting cell growth.
To explore their theory, they extracted muscle cells from mice and mixed them with a special solution that simulates aerobic exercise.
Using this technique, they were able to establish that when muscle cells are exercised, they release a protein called cathepsin B.
When the researchers added cathepsin B to neurons, they found that it stimulated neurogenesis.
By measuring levels of cathepsin B in mice, monkeys, and humans who undertake regular exercise, they were able to confirm their theory.
Each species became mentally sharper and better able to retain information after a few weeks of working out.
You can’t buy cathepsin B supplements – the only way to benefit from its effects is by exercising.
Fitness and cognitive function in older adults
Most studies in this area have recruited young and middle-aged adults.
Aerobic exercise helps keep you sharp well into old age.
Specifically, working out maintains executive control processes, which are responsible for multi-tasking and working memory.
Keeping fit may also help protect you from dementia and slow the rate of age-related decline.
Running not only makes you smarter – it also makes you happier
Along with medication and psychotherapy, medical professionals are beginning to recognize the potential of exercise as a treatment for mild to moderate depression.
A review published in journal Acta Neuropsychiatrica last year advises that there is “considerable evidence” that exercise is an effective antidepressant.
Running and other moderate to heavy exercise prompts the brain to release serotonin, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of contentment and relaxation.
It also boosts cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for forming new memories.
Additional benefits include increased self-confidence and the satisfaction that comes with mastering a new skill.
Many accomplished individuals have long extolled the virtues of running on their mood and productivity.
For instance, singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette claims that running leaves her feeling empowered and helps clear her mind.
Other enthusiastic runners include Oprah Winfrey, Kevin Hart, and Alicia Keys.
Finally, running helps regulate your body clock and improves your sleep patterns.
This is good news if you want to enhance your performance at work or school because you need high-quality sleep to learn and retain new information, maintain your concentration, and keep your energy levels high.
With the evidence mounting up in favor of exercise, why not make time in your schedule to go for a run?
Make a pledge to work out several times each week, and you’ll soon start reaping the benefits on both a physical and psychological level.
If you can’t stand running, at least go for a brisk walk – there’s evidence that a quick walk has a significant positive impact on creativity.
Remember, any regular movement is good for health, so dust off your running shoes and start working out!