Can Physical Activity Stimulate the Brain?

Regular physical activity has many benefits for the body, but also for the mind. It helps stimulate the brain, which helps you process information.
Can Physical Activity Stimulate the Brain?

Last update: 10 October, 2020

To maximize cognitive abilities, you have to stimulate the brain. The supply of blood flow provides the necessary oxygen for brain processes such as memory, attention, or language to take place.

There are several ways to stimulate the brain. On one hand, there are more natural and less invasive ways such as reading, meditating or exercising. On the other hand, there are medical and surgical procedures such as deep brain stimulation. This consists of implanting electrodes in certain parts of the brain. However, this procedure only treats conditions such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s.

There’s one activity that’s caught the attention of researchers both for its ability to stimulate the brain and for its health benefits: physical exercise. For all of these reasons, we’ll discuss what effect physical activity has on the brain.

Physical activity can create new blood vessels in the brain

Just as physical activity causes changes in the muscles, so do adaptations in the brain. One of those adaptations is the creation of new blood vessels throughout the cerebral cortex.

The increase in vascularity is known as the angiogenic effect and is a protective factor against brain aging. This adaptation to exercise is very important because it helps distribute oxygen and nutrients, and therefore, strengthens cognitive processes.

According to a study published in the American Geriatrics Society journal with retired people, those who were more active showed better cognitive functioning and a higher rate of cerebral perfusion.

Produce new connections between neurons: stimulate the brain

A man doing the superman plank outside.

Physical exercise is also capable of stimulating the creation of connections between neurons, thereby increasing the thickness of brain tissue. Although there aren’t definitive conclusions yet, certain studies reveal that light physical exercise can increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a gene involved in the creation of brain tissue.

In a study published by the University of Illinois, they found a positive relationship between the aerobic capacity of middle-aged people and the density of brain tissue. Therefore, people in good physical condition have healthier brains.

Protect against neurodegenerative diseases

Regular exercise has short-term benefits, such as increased oxygenation in the brain or well-being, but it also has long-term benefits. In this sense, physical activity is a protective factor against neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

According to a study published in The Lancet Neurology, the likelihood of Alzheimer’s was significantly lower in older people who had been active during adulthood. On the contrary, those who led a sedentary lifestyle showed a higher risk index.

Boost efficiency in executive functions: stimulate the brain

Physical activity produces stimulation in all areas of the brain, but there’s one part that is more sensitive: the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for higher cognitive processes such as reasoning, planning, or controlling behavior. Also, it’s the area that takes the longest to mature, and it’s the first that’s affected by brain aging.

An older woman stretching at home.

Physical activity can optimize the processes controlled by the prefrontal cortex. For example, it benefits reaction time to stimuli and working memory. The latter is the ability to recall information while performing a task.

Physical activity is the best way to stimulate the brain

The brain is one of the most important organs. Without its proper functioning, you can’t survive. Therefore, it’s important to take care of it and make sure it’s healthy.

Following a series of healthy habits is a first step towards keeping your brain healthy. This includes a healthy and balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and getting physical exercise on a daily basis. All of these changes will have a positive impact on heath, both in the short term and in the future, during old age.

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  • Colcombe, S. J., Erickson, K. I., Raz, N., Webb, A. G., Cohen, N. J., McAuley, E., & Kramer, A. F. (2003). Aerobic fitness reduces brain tissue loss in aging humans. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 58(2), 176-180.
  • Rogers, R. L., Meyer, J. S., y Mortel, K. F. (1990). After reaching retirement age physical activity sustains cerebral perfusion and cognition. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 38(2), 123-128.
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  • Tsujii, T., Komatsu, K., y Sakatani, K. (2013). Acute effects of physical exercise on prefrontal cortex activity in older adults: a functional near-infrared spectroscopy study. In Oxygen transport to tissue XXXIV (pp. 293-298). Springer, New York, NY.