We all know the great high energy, yet focused, feeling you get after a great workout. It’s no surprise that exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain, both for short term performance as well as for long term brain health.
In general exercise reduces inflammation, improves mood, decreases anxiety and depression, decreases insulin resistance and improves sleep- all which either directly or indirectly improve cognitive performance. But perhaps the most potent positive aspect of exercise on brain health is the increase of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor).
This chemical produced by our brains regulates the communication between brain cells and is responsible for building new synapses (think of highways between different parts of the brain). New synapses are formed when we learn something new. The role of BDNF is crucial for both short- and long-term memory and integrating information into what we already know (building and maintaining these highways of connection between two things). For example- seeing a certain type of question and associating this with the correct formula you need to know in order to answer that question. Several studies have designated BDNF as a critical factor in long term potentiation (learning and memory) and it is needed for efficient learning.
Although any type of exercise is good for your body- aerobic exercise has been found to directly increases the size of the hippocampus in humans. This part of the brain is used for learning and for verbal memory- kind of important for exams! Exercise in general has been associated with a larger prefrontal and temporal cortex (used for thinking and memory) and in those who were monitored after 6 months of training- researchers found that there was a further increase in the volume of these regions.
A combination of both resistance training and aerobic exercise about 4 times per week, with actively resting (yoga, going for walks, recreational sports) on days where you are not working out is a good goal. However, like anything, an exercise prescription is highly individualized. Are you burnt out and exhausted and struggling to get up in the morning? Maybe overdoing it on exercise isn’t helpful for you. Are you highly anxious and having trouble focusing? Maybe you need to have a high intensity exercise routine 5 days a week. Like anything, do what feels right for you and your body and always check with a healthcare professional before starting something new!
Stay tuned for the last segment - my own study tips and tricks!