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The effects of exercise on our body are pretty evident. Over the past dozen years, neuroscientists have been gathering evidence of exercise’s benefits on brain function. To give you a little context, these are relatively new insights that stem from the paradigm shift in neuroscience that the brain is shaped by experience — and is not a “fixed” structure with definite number of cells.
Have you ever heard the myth, “You are born with all the neurons you will ever have”? Today, we know that not only does experience shape a brain, but that there are new brain cells being produced in specified areas all the time. And the best news is that exercising regularly can enhance the birth of new neurons and help them live longer. Some of these new cells are born in the brain area called the hippocampus, a region critical for learning and memory, which is sensitive to environmental factors like stress and exercise.
Recently, scientists uncovered that breaking a sweat stimulates the production of the protein FNDC5 in the brain, an exercise-induced protein previously identified only in muscle. Over time, this protein stimulates our brain’s BFF, another protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which nourishes new neurons and synapses, preserves the survival of existing brain cells, and is critical for learning and memory. BDNF also orchestrates the actions of other brain chemicals and systems, making it a crucial mediator for the ability of exercise to enhance learning and memory. So endurance training in particular can help trigger a biochemical cascade that in turn helps our brain create new neurons that survive, enhances brain plasticity and maintains our memory and cognitive skills.
Evidently, exercising keeps our brain in shape just as much as it does our bodies. The great news is that it doesn’t take much to reap the benefits — moderate exercise, brisk walks, even just 30 minutes a day — can power up our brain to renew itself and keep us sharp as a tack.