Exercise and Your Brain

Craig Hospital
Exercise and Your Brain

What is Cognition?

Cognition is all of those mental processes that you need to function. And, it's all those mental processes that can be affected by a traumatic brain injury (TBI). These are some of the things that make up cognition:

  • Remembering
  • Attention and focusing
  • Learning and understanding new things
  • Processing and understanding information
  • Doing mathematical calculations
  • Finding the right words when you are talking
  • Solving problems and making decisions
  • Controlling your impulses and desires; being patient
  • Thinking clearly and not being confused

How do Scientists Know that Exercise Helps Cognition?

  • Scientists have been studying older people. They've found that those who are not physically active are more likely to have cognitive problems.
  • Other scientists have learned that exercise helps people who have depression. Their mental problems often improve.
  • Scientists are studying how animals learn. They track chemicals in the brain that protect nerves and help them function better. They now know that these chemicals increase in laboratory rats after they run in their exercise wheels. And, rats that exercised learned more quickly and did better on other tests, like running through a maze.
  • Scientists have put special dyes and tracers into people's blood. They then use special machines to track that circulating blood. They found that more blood makes its way to the brain in people who exercise than in people who do not exercise.
  • Scientists have given research subjects different tests before and after they exercise. These tests measured things like how fast their thought processes were and how well they could remember. The scientists then compared the results. They found improvements after exercise.

Are you still skeptical?

It's complicated. Maybe it's even a little hard to believe. But, if you understand how exercise has its effect, maybe this will make more sense. Maybe you'll even decide to start an exercise program that will help your body and your brain!

Here's what happens in your brain with exercise:

  1. Researchers are finding that exercise increases blood flow to your brain. More blood to the brain means more nutrition for your brain. Just like good nutrition makes your muscles and your body work better, good nutrition also makes your brain work better. When exercise improves the nutrition to your brain, it could make you think faster, more clearly, and longer. It could make it easier to remember things. It could help any or all of the things on the list above.
  2. Exercise also decreases fat. Too much fat clogs blood vessels and keeps the brain from getting the blood it needs. Arteries that are not clogged can carry more nutritious blood to the brain.
  3. Exercise may help increase how active or excited your nerves are. When nerves in the brain are active, they use up the energy sources that are stored in the brain. The brain then demands new energy - in the form of more blood, which is the brain's "power source."
  4. Exercise affects chemicals in your brain called neurotransmitters. Think of neurotransmitters as "transmission fluid" for your nerves. This fluid surrounds the nerves in your brain. Scientists are finding that when you exercise, the amount of this transmission fluid increases. This helps nerve impulses travel faster. It helps the impulses jump from one nerve to the next. In the end, it helps messages get where they are going quickly and correctly. This can improve the speed at which you can think and process information. It can also help improve mood and memory.
  5. Some experts believe that exercise may improve brain "plasticity." This is the brain's ability to change, and repair itself after damage. It makes sense that if you have had damage to your brain, having more plasticity would be a very good thing.
  6. Scientists believe that exercise changes your brain physically. It causes more blood vessels to be formed, and it causes them to be laid down close to one another. You already know that more blood vessels means more blood, and that more blood means better nutrition. All this adds up to better brain function. And because these new blood vessels tend to be very close to one another, it means that more areas of the brain are getting better nutrition.
  7. Exercise forces you to stay focused and concentrate on what you're doing. It's possible that improved focusing and concentrating continue after you have stopped your workout

What kind of exercise is best?

  • Exercise that involves movement is better than static exercise.
  • An exercise that challenges you is good. Things that make you focus on what you are doing or learn something new are better than things you can do without thinking.
  • Exercise is best when it is what the researchers call "chronic" or regular. Several times a week is best. And you need to do it always - week after week, and month after month. You need to do it hard enough and long enough that you see increases in your level of fitness. It needs to be a habit, part of your life.
  • Exercise that includes changes in scenery is good. Workouts that involve interacting with other people are also good. An exercise class might be better than working out alone. Running or biking outside beats running on a treadmill or riding a stationary bicycle. The less "boring" or automatic the exercise is, the better it probably is for your brain! But don't get the wrong idea: Any kind of exercise is better than none at all.
  • The exercise may not need to be exhausting or push you to the limit. One researcher found that less taxing exercise was actually better at helping cognition. It makes sense: when you are totally fatigued, you can't function as well.
  • You may not have to exercise for a long time. Some experts say short exercise periods are as good as or better than long ones.
  • Bottom line: Any exercise could help!

Go for it!

Do you still have Questions?

Are you interested in starting an exercise program, but have doubts? Check with your doctor. He or she can give you the go ahead. Your doctor might even have suggestions for which kinds of exercise might be best. If your TBI created other concerns, like balance, weakness, or coordination problems, you might want to check with a physcial therapist to get some specific guidance.

Posted on BrainLine August 12, 2008.

From Craig Hospital, Englewood, Colorado. Reprinted with permission. www.craighospital.org.

Comments (3)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

I'm writing on behalf of my son Kenny. After an almost fatal accident, his prognosis was severe TBI and life expectancy in a vegetative state. Kenny was almost a full month in coma, 6 months as in-patient in a rehabilitation center. Once I brought Kenny home we started going 10 times a week for rehabilitation (ot, pt and spech) gym, swimming classes, piano classes, cognitive. As of right now Kenny is walking, eating, shows cognitive functions and he is making noises with his mouth. Kenny came home with 90% of his body paralyzed with out no hope, as of right now he is thriving.

what if i am disabled i.e in a wheelchair
I think that a TBI has actually encouraged me to concentrate more fully on the issues or challenges that are posed to some survivors. I’m coming from a solid educational and athletic background and I couldn’t agree more with the ascertain that cognitive skills are made sharper through more athletic and cognitive exercise, or use. From my experience being active physically has given me more personal self confidence and willingness to engage others in debate. And that goes both ways, where as I can better appreciate alternate views. Currently, I am employed as a tennis instructor, play golf, and at lunch I use the gym facility to help me stay in shape and clear my mind.