I’m sure you’ve heard it before that a fit body leads to a fit mind. You’ve probably even encountered one article or another about the importance of physical exercise for your mental health and how it can help to improve one’s mental state. But have you ever stopped to consider what exactly that means? How is it that exercise, an ostensibly physical activity, can have a positive impact on our mental state? And what happens when we combine physically and cognitively demanding exercises?
What happens to our brains when we exercise?
When you perform a physical activity, like walking or running, your brain demands more oxygen to perform that exercise. Over time, this causes your cardiovascular system to increase the size of your heart and build new blood vessels, thereby building physical endurance and making your body stronger. Similarly, when you push your physical boundaries it can make your brain stronger and more resilient too.
A study from the 1990s conducted by the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California found that running produced new hippocampal neurons in mice. This was due to the production of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is produced throughout the body and in the brain and promotes both the growth and the survival of developing neurons.
Aerobic exercise causes an increase in BDNF and this helps increase the size and connectivity of key areas of the brain, including the hippocampus – the area in your brain that is associated with memory. This is important because the deterioration of the hippocampus is linked to memory difficulties during aging. This means that exercise could potentially assist in countering the effects of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
It’s important to emphasize that, while exercise on its own is good for the hippocampus, combining physical activity with cognitive demands is ideal, as it leads to even more new neurons, and that can lead to enhanced neuron survival.
We Got It from Our Ancestors
Our ancestors went from walking on all fours to bipedal posture (walking on two feet). This indicates that their minds as well as their bodies changed over time to make this adjustment, meaning that they were challenged both physically and cognitively.
Research shows that our bipedal ancestors were presumably sedentary, eating mostly plants and therefore relying on very little movement to get their daily meals. Later on, this changed with hunter-gatherers. Hunting and foraging for food naturally involved much more physical activity than surviving off of plants, as they were required to travel long distances to acquire food.
To successfully do this, they relied on navigation skills in order to recognize their surroundings and know where to go to locate food. Additionally, they had to rely on their visual and auditory systems to scan the landscape for signs of food. They also needed to rely on their memory in order to recall which locations provided the kinds of food they were looking for.
The act of finding food became reliant on the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (the regions in the brain associated with memory and planning, respectively), among other regions, because the hunter-gatherers needed to walk long distances and multitask (navigate, recall specific locations and types of food, and communicate with their group) in order to feed themselves. Thus, the sedentary plant consumer evolved into someone who needed to perform a physical and cognitive activity to put food in their belly.
Ways to Train Your Brain and Your Body
So perhaps it’s time to switch up our exercise routine to make sure it’s as cognitively challenging as it is physically. It’s important to keep in mind that our hunter-gatherer ancestors evolved by facing unpredictable challenges and situations. If we continue to exercise on stationary machinery while cranking Britney or Drake, without any cognitively demanding challenges, our ability to evolve will inevitably be stunted.
But it is vital that you ensure you’re giving your brain a workout as well.
Potential ways to do so include, but are not limited to:
· Walking/running/cycling on a stationary machine while: watching an informative documentary / practicing a foreign language / reading / playing a mentally demanding video game or a brain training exercise.
· Taking a walk outside rather than on a treadmill while doing one of the activities mentioned above
· Taking a hike while listening to an informative podcast or audiobook
By the way, if you’re cycling on a stationary machine, you might as well try Myndlift’s neurofeedback while exercising! We’d love to hear how it goes!
Basically, do anything that you feel will push you cognitively that you can combine with your physical activity. In the long run (no pun intended), your brain will thank you for it!