Brain and Cognitive Fitness

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Exercise is a powerful tool for enhancing mental performance and cognitive health. Whether you want to improve your general brain health and memory[1][2], enhance your problem solving abilities[3], reduce your risk of Parkinsons or Alzheimers[4][5][6][7], or bend metal and shoot lasers with your mind exercise has an important role to play in all but two of those activities. In particular, richer fitness regimens regimens consisting of aerobic and resistance training methods[8][1], produce the greatest overall improvements in cognitive performance and neurochemical brain processes. Note, however, working out for sixteen hours each day wont turn you into the next Stephen Hawking. There are diminishing returns[9], and the favorable cerebral environment promoted by exercise is only as good as the active learning that accompanies it.

In the same way that exercise has been found to improve a wide range of general health conditions[15][16][17][18][19][20][21], so too does it have wide and positive impacts across the brain. Its effects extend across vascular[22][23], metabolic[24][25], inflammatory[26] [24] and stress-regulating[27] pathways as they exist in the brain. Exercise has been shown to enhance neuronal metabolic and mitochondrial functioning[28][25], decrease oxidative stress in the hippocampus[29][27], and increase mitochondrial machinery[28]. Another way of saying this: working out helps improve the power supply, the work environment and workers themselves in neuronal train stations. On the other end, stress, and chronic stress in particular, has been linked to impaired functioning of, and indeed damage to, the hippocampus[27]. Exercise has shown favorable benefits in the regulation of stress (and in particular the management of corticosteroid processes e.g. cortisol)[27], and may also favorably affect hippocampal memory systems through this process (also potentially leading to improvements in mood and attention if not intelligence).

More specific to the process of memory formation and the underlying neuronal structure, exercise has been found to increase levels of hippocampal neurotrophins[32]. Neurotrophins are a class of growth factors centrally important in the development and health of neurons[33]. In particular, increases in a neurotrophin called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) have been linked to neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) and improved synaptic plasticity[32][24] [34], producing substantial improvements in memory[24]. In turn, exercise has been found to up-regulate levels of hippocampal BDNF[34]- and much of its impact on memory appears to stem from this process[35]. To make a wild analogy and a gross, but potentially useful, simplification BDNF is to neurogenesis as testosterone is to muscle growth.

Insulin like growth factor 1 (IGF1) is another compound which has been found to enhance neurogenesis and plasticity processes[36][37], and it is similarly upregulated through working out[38][39][40]. Not only does strenuous physical activity lead to positive increases in these compounds, but it can also help regulate hormones which indirectly support them. Active fitness workouts have been shown to help maintain levels of testosterone and estrogen[41][42], which have also been shown to help favorably regulate levels of neurotrophins and neurogenesis [43][44][45][41]. Taken together, the neuronal and synaptic plasticity promoted by these compounds ultimately work to facilitate some of the basic processes of cognition, learning and memory formation such as Long Term Potentiation, or LTP. Exercise appears to have has favorable effects on LTP [46][47][48], most likely mediated by its positive effects on synaptic plasticity generally.

To see more on how physical activity impacts cognitive fitness, mood, attention and intelligence see http://www.bodbot.com/Cognitive_Health.html

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