The old adage “healthy body, healthy mind” has been around for decades, and anyone who gets regular exercise can attest to its positive mental health benefits. Now, as researchers make new inroads into brain health, we are beginning to understand the specific mechanisms by which the human brain is improved by exercise. In particular, weight bearing exercise that overloads the large muscles of the legs appears to have multiple benefits for cognitive health.
How Leg Work Promotes Brain Health
Exercise influences brain health in several ways, promoting improved cognitive function while rejuvenating both muscle and brain tissue. Failure to perform load-bearing exercises causes you to lose muscle mass, and affects your body chemistry in such a way that your brain and nervous system begin to deteriorate. In fact, neurological health depends on signals from your large leg muscles just as much as movement depends on signals from your brain to your muscles.
Some specific ways brain function is affected by load bearing exercise include:
- Weight-bearing exercise sends signals to your brain that are vital for the production of healthy nerve cells, the building blocks that enable you to manage stress and adapt to challenges.
- Exercise boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor, responsible for rejuvenating both muscle and brain tissue.
- Failure to exercise against the force of gravity negatively affects a gene called CDK5Rap1, which plays an important role in cell mitochondrial health and function. Well-functioning mitochondria are essential for optimal health. In fact, mitochondrial dysfunction is a root cause of chronic disease, including the degeneration of your brain and nervous system.
- Exercise promotes the production of a protein called FNDC5, which in turn triggers the production of BDNF, a rejuvenator for both brain and muscle. BDNF helps preserve brain cells, and activates brainstem cells to generate new neurons. BDNF also promotes brain growth in the hippocampus region, which is associated with memory.
- Load-bearing exercise increases the flow of oxygen to your brain, which in turn improves brain function.
- Leg exercise reduces the amount of damaging brain plaques, and changes the way damaging proteins are situated in your brain, slowing the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Exercise normalizes your circulating insulin levels, lowering your risk for diabetes, which is linked to a 65 percent increased risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Load bearing exercise lowers systemic inflammation, which is linked to metabolic disease and cognitive decline.
- Exercise boosts endorphins and serotonin production, elevating your mood and promoting productive sleep. It also lowers stress chemicals that have been linked to weight gain and heart disease.
The Brain Health-Fitness Connection
Any fitness professional worth their salt recognizes that fitness is largely a mind game. Motivation, perseverance, and focus are all mental resources that are needed to overcome discomfort in order to attain fitness goals. As your clients’ bodies become stronger and healthier, so do their brains, and so does their capacity to overcome mental obstacles, to get to the next level of fitness.
Digging Deep for Professional Growth
Research studies are continually digging deeper to understand the underlying mechanisms that affect our minds and bodies. As a fitness professional, you owe it to yourself to stay abreast of the latest research, so you can apply your knowledge and grow your business. W.I.T.S. is working for you daily to provide the latest information for professional development. To learn more about how exercise affects mental health, sign up for the online course, “Alzheimer’s Disease Prevention and Intervention,” provided in collaboration with our partners at the Med Fit Education Foundation.