Exercise and Brain Health: Insights from Recent Research

Exercise and Brain Health: Insights from Recent Research
By Erin Phelan

By Erin Phelan

Fitness Industry Council of Canada

Exercise is the magic pill for the myriad of health benefits it offers from reducing chronic illnesses to improving cardiovascular health, maintaining a healthy weight, and enhancing overall fitness. Recent studies have shown that exercise is as effective as medication for depression, stress and anxiety. And, a growing body of research highlights its profound impact on brain health.


Let’s explore the relationship between exercise and brain health, including cognitive function, mental acuity with a focus  on  recent studies, including research on Parkinson’s disease, to understand how physical activity influences brain health.

Exercise and Cognitive Function

Cognitive function refers to our higher-level brain functions, that encompasses language, perception, imagination, and planning – how we think and process information. Numerous studies have shown that regular physical activity can significantly enhance cognitive function. Aerobic exercises, such as running, cycling, and swimming, have been particularly effective in improving memory, attention, and executive functions. A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that older adults who engaged in regular aerobic exercise showed improvements in memory and executive function, as well as increased brain volume in regions associated with these cognitive tasks.


How it works:

The enhanced cognitive benefits of exercise are believed to stem from several mechanisms: Exercise promotes the growth of new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory and learning. Physical activity improves the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time, which is vital for learning and memory and increases blood flow to the brain, ensuring a steady supply of oxygen and nutrients.


The “hot ticket” you might have heard about is BDNF: Exercise stimulates the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports neuron survival and growth. These are proteins for our brain. BDNF has been shown to enhance our mental abilities, and studies in mice have shown that it can also protect against anxiety and depression.


Exercise and Neurodegenerative Diseases

In what made headlines around the world this year, several studies showed that patients with Parkinson’s Disease who repeatedly pushed pedals significantly decreased their symptoms. Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder characterized by motor symptoms such as tremors, stiffness, and bradykinesia (slowness of movement). In addition, a study published in “The Lancet Neurology” demonstrated that high-intensity treadmill exercise could slow the progression of PD symptoms. Participants who engaged in regular high-intensity exercise showed less decline in motor function compared to those who exercised at moderate intensity or not at all.


And it isn’t just cardio: An umbrella review of studies from the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease reported that resistance training improved muscle strength and motor performance in Parkinson’s Disease  patients, highlighting the importance of incorporating different types of exercise into a treatment plan.


How it works:

Exercise may have a protective effect on dopaminergic neurons, which are primarily affected in Parkinson’s disease, and can also enhance the function of the basal ganglia, a brain region involved in movement regulation. Exercise has been shown to increase dopamine synthesis and release, which can help alleviate motor symptoms in Parkinson’s Disease.

Exercise and Dementia / Alzheimer’s

Dementia is the loss of mental function and acuity that affects daily activities, caused by brain diseases and injuries. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia – and according to Statistics Canada, it is estimated that between 6 and 15 percent of Canadians aged 65 or older suffer from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive, neurodegenerative disorder caused by the accumulation of abnormal misfolded protein deposits in the brain, which disrupt normal neuronal function, leading to a gradual loss of memory, cognitive skills and the ability to carry out daily skills.


Research published in the journal Neurology found that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and slow cognitive decline in those already diagnosed with the disease.

According to Stanford Lifestyle Medicine, several research studies have concluded that physical activity is one of the best ways to reduce our risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s – in fact, regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia by 28 percent, and specifically Alzheimer’s by 45 percent. This is likely due to the brain’s ability to adapt and form new neural connections, or strengthen existing ones. During aerobic exercise, our brain:

"Expresses cAMP response element binding (CREB) proteins that influence the transcription of synaptic genes, including those encoding for brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF supports neurogenesis (the formation of new neuron cells), neuroprotection, and angiogenesis (the formation of new blood vessels). BDNF also increases the volume of gray matter and the hippocampus (the site of memory in the brain)"

Exercise plays a crucial role in maintaining and enhancing brain health, offering protective effects against cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. By understanding the mechanisms through which physical activity influences brain function, we can better appreciate the importance of incorporating regular exercise into our daily lives and inspire and encourage others to embrace an active lifestyle. 

Fitness Industry Council of Canada (FIC) is the not-for profit trade association that represents the voice of fitness facility operators across Canada. Representing more than 6,000 facilities with more than six-million members nationwide, FIC pursues a legislative agenda in the hope of bettering the fitness industry for both consumers and operators. FIC aims to work with both industry and government to improve the health and physical activity levels of Canadians.

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