Can Aerobic Exercise Improve the Function of our Brain?

In the past few weeks we’ve been looking at the drive towards producing an Active Nation and the role that Active Design and an Active Workplace play. This week we look at the benefits being active can have on our brain and mental well-being. Specifically, can aerobic exercise improve the function of our brain? Will going for a run improve mood, memory, and attention span in the short and long term?

The issue is very topical. With the exam season upon us England Athletics is launching its #RunAndRevise campaign (13th-19th May) to encourage 16-25 year old students to improve their mood and alleviate stress by taking a break from revision and going for a run.

The Young Minds Wise Up campaign found that “80% of young people state that exam pressure has significantly impacted on their mental health” while the The Mental Health Foundation’s Childhood and Adolescent Mental Health: understanding the lifetime impacts report stated, “Among teenagers, rates of depression and anxiety have increased by 70% in the past 25 years, particularly since the mid 1980’s. The changes are not the result of an increasing tendency to rate teenagers as problematic, but the result of real changes in behaviour and experiences”.

So, will aerobic activity such as going for a run help teenagers and young adults combat the stress and anxiety that exam season brings? And what about the broader population?

Researchers from King’s College London have found physical activity can protect against the onset of depression, regardless of age and geographical region.

“Our robust analysis of over a quarter of a million people found consistent evidence that people who are more active are less likely to develop depression in the future. We found that higher levels of physical activity were protective from future depression in children, adults and older adults, across every continent and after taking into account other important factors such as body mass index, smoking and physical health conditions. Given the multitude of other health benefits of physical activity, our data add to the pressing calls to prioritise physical activity across the lifespan.”

Dr Brendon Stubbs, Post-doctoral research physiotherapist, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London and Head of Physiotherapy, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust

Exactly how does aerobic exercise effect the brain and improve mood? In the short term, a single 30 minute workout will “immediately increase levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline”, according to Dr. Wendy A. Suzuki, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology, Center for Neural Science, New York University. These neurotransmitters are the biochemical messengers in your brain that effect your mood and help you feel more alert and to think clearer and faster. An improvement in the ability to focus attention and concentrate is something that anyone revising for an exam will find difficult at times.

Suzuki also researched the long-term benefits of aerobic exercise on the brain and found it actually changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology and function:
  • Aerobic exercise helps to produce brand new brain cells in the hippocampus which leads to increases in its volume. The hippocampus is responsible for the ability to form and retain long term memories for facts and events.
  • Aerobic exercise helps to produce brand new brain cells in the prefrontal cortex which again leads to increases in its volume. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision-making, focus, attention and the development of personality.
  • Aerobic exercise creates long-lasting increases in the levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline.
Suzuki suggests that a minimum of 30 minutes aerobic exercise 3 to 4 times a week on a regular basis will increase the size of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex and in doing so have a protective effect on your brain. This increase in size in these two areas is important because they are most susceptible to cognitive decline in older adults and neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s. Although she stresses that increasing exercise will not cure neurodegenerative diseases she suggests that having increased the size of hippocampus and prefrontal cortex these types of diseases will take longer to have an effect.

So, the students taking part in the #RunAndRevise campaign can be reassured that not only are they immediately lifting their mood and improving their concentration with that run but if they continue with an aerobic regime throughout their lifetime they will protect their brains from incurable neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.