Timeline: How exercise transforms your brain
How much more could you achieve if you had new neurons or a bigger brain? Maybe you’d remember that killer one-liner, or finally achieve your goal of world domination…
Over the last few decades, neuroscience has begun to uncover the transformative impact of exercise on the brain.
But how long does it take to experience the benefits? And what exactly is going on in your brain when you move?
Blood flow is like a mineral bath for your brain.
After 1 workout: your mood & focus improves
You move, you sweat and your heart rate increases – which pumps more blood (and therefore oxygen and nutrients) to your brain.
This blood flow is like a mineral bath for your brain. By increasing levels of mood-boosting chemicals like dopamine, it can improve memory and focus for up to 3 hours after your workout.
When the post-workout endocannabinoids hit.
Heard about the post-workout rush? New research indicates chemicals known as endocannabinoids may drive the feel-good effect by reducing anxiety and making you feel happy and optimistic.
Tip: Tackle your tax return or complex work project after doing a workout.
After a month of exercising the power bank in your brain is charged and ready.
After 1 month of workouts: your brain power is boosted
People who exercise regularly for a month start to experience improved memory, information processing and attention. Scientists believe this boost is linked to higher levels of a protein crucial for learning and memory, known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
More research is needed to understand the connection, but after a month of exercising the power bank in your brain is charged and ready – thanks to higher levels of BDNF in your bloodstream, even on days you don’t do a workout.
Tip: Studying or starting a new job? Keep up with your workouts to lock in what you’re learning.
After 6 months of workouts: your brain grows
When we asked people why they exercise in a recent Centr survey, 71 percent told us that mental health was a main reason they hit the mat. They’re definitely onto something: regular exercise over extended periods can help you to consistently feel better.
Brain volume increases in the areas that control thinking and memory after around 6 months of consistent exercise.
We lose dopamine receptors (a kind of docking station that helps dopamine deliver its chemical reward to your cells) as we age. But one study found that just 8 weeks of exercise meant more of these receptors were reporting for feel-good duty.
Research also indicates exercise can be an effective treatment for mental health issues – like depression and anxiety – alongside medication and counseling. Continuing to exercise will help to maintain mental health improvements.
Luke’s building a bigger brain to go with those biceps.
If you’re worried about shrinkage, you should know that brain volume increases in the areas that control thinking and memory after around 6 months of consistent exercise.
A growing and active brain also demands increased blood flow. You need healthy blood vessels to keep your neurons firing (and new neurons growing), so fire up your muscles with regular exercise.
Tip: Add physical exercise to your mental well-being toolkit alongside other practices such as meditation and spending time in nature.
By regularly working out, you’ll also be protecting your brain against dementia.
After years of working out: your risk of cognitive decline plummets
All the short-term benefits of exercise for your mood, focus and cognition layer up and grow stronger as you continue to exercise in the long term. By regularly working out, you’ll also be protecting your brain against dementia.
As neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki says: “The more you’re working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets.” It’s important to give these areas of the brain a boost, as they’re the most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline as you age.
Long-term regular exercise can reverse the shrinking of the hippocampus – the region of your brain that powers memory – in older people.
Plus, a study that followed people for 14 years found that those who did more physical activity showed lower levels of depressive symptoms over time.
Tip: To build an exercise habit that is more likely to stick in the long term, try building exercise into your routine in bite-size chunks – such as 10 minutes a day for three days a week.
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