Exercise and the Brain

Our body and brain are directly linked; therefore, changes to our body will also change our brain.

Movement is in fact fuel for the brain. The exciting field of neuroplasticity shows that the brain is capable of change from birth to death. The old adage, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ isn’t accurate when it comes to the capabilities of the brain. Modern science has taught us that brains can continue to learn and create change at any age. What a relief! And exercise is one of the great ways we can bring about positive brain changes.

Here’s how it works: Receptors (mechanoreceptors that respond to mechanical stimuli to be exact,) in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, discs and joints provide sensory input from the body to the brain. This is called proprioception – our ability to know where we are in space at any time. Interestingly these receptors are very highly concentrated in the cervical spine (the neck), one of several reasons why Chiropractors are particularly concerned with the alignment of the head on the body.

A sedentary lifestyle provides less input to the brain from these receptors – not good news.  A joint that has impaired movement can result in more nociceptor firing (the opposite of mechanoreceptors). Nociceptors are part of our sensory system which triggers an alarm response. Basically not moving our body enough can send alarm signals to our body and brain that we are in danger, increasing stress and tension throughout the body and even pain. Exercise can decrease this. Furthermore, when we injure a body part and use it less the brain can eventually decrease the real estate dedicated for that body part. This is the ‘use it or lose it’ concept of neuroplasticity, which will over time make the injured body part work less or become more painful than the original injury.

Aerobic exercise also has been shown to stimulate neurogenesis, the birth of new brain cells. This is the great news! While for decades scientists believed we could not produce new brain cells or neurons beyond childhood we now know that this school of thought is not true. Regular aerobic exercise can even help protect against degenerative brain disease such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Exercise also increases several important neurotransmitters in our body and brain. For example, Dopamine and Serotonin levels increase with exercise; these are the feel good, motivational, memory and impulse control hormones. Neuronal growth factor levels also increase with exercise; these hormones are associated with growth of new brain cells and brain cell connections.

Motor development (the ability to move our body) and cognitive development are intimately connected; we must move our body to improve and impact our brain. Higher fitness levels are even linked to healthier grey matter (brain tissue). By changing/moving our body we do in fact change/grow our brain, it’s up to us which direction we choose the change to take… for the better or for the worse.