How d​oes exercise help the brain?

Heard of neuroplasticity? That's what exercise helps the brain maintain. And according to science, it's a good thing. ​Research shows th​at the brain is not static and does not stay the same way it was at birth. It is capable of plasticity and changes throughout life, generating new cells and new pathways. “From a neurologist’s point of view, the brain is a learning machine which needs stimulation on various fronts. It’s a case of use it or lose it,” said Dr Sim​on Ting, Senior Consultant, National Neuroscience Institute​ (NNI), a member of the SingHe​​alth​ group.

He said that when the brain is exposed to different tasks, it forms new connections between brain cells. Synapses (junctions between two nerve cells) can re-form and reconnect. “Exercise – both mental and physical – enhances this neuroplasticity.” However, he said that physical exercise, compared to just mental exercise, engages all five senses, and hence gives the brain more informat​ion to integrate. Here’s how physical exercise benefits the brain, according to Dr Ting: ​

  • ​​It boosts circulation:​ Improved circulation brings more oxygen-rich blood to the brain. Although the brain only makes up about 2 per cent of the body’s weight, more than 20 per cent of the body’s blood supply circulates through it.
  • It improves mood: It boosts levels of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that drives the reward pathway in the brain and imparts a feel-good state.​
  • It keeps the brain busy: “Exercise makes the brain more attractive, focused and busy because exercise requires an individual to be coordinated and [continuously] sensing his surroundings.”​
  • It modulates blood pressure: It improves cardiovascular function, which in turn modulates blood pressure. It benefits the heart, and whatever benefits the heart benefits the brain. It also improves the general well-being of blood vessels in the brain, reducing the risk of blockages, and hence problems such as strokes. Even those with heart disease or who’ve had a stroke can exercise, but they should not overdo it.”​

See next page for exercises that are great for mind-body health​.

Ref: O17