Exercise Fights Obesity, Improves Brain Power


A woman exercises on a treadmill | Image by Shutterstock

While it is well known that exercise is good for fighting obesity, new findings are shedding light on the benefits our brains accrue from physical activity.

According to Wendy Suzuki, professor of neural science and psychology at New York University, exercise can cause permanent positive changes to the brain following years of consistent activity.

In her books, Healthy Brain, Happy Life and Good Anxiety, she explained that long-term exercise is associated with better brain function, memory center growth, and improved neurological connections in the regions of the brain that deal with focus.

Speaking with Insider, Suzuki explained that physical exertion unleashes a “bubble bath” of neurochemicals like serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals reduce anxiety and improve mood and happiness, a long-recognized benefit of physical activity.

As previously reported in The Dallas Express, researchers recently found that stress and anxiety may play a role in exacerbating the obesity epidemic by increasing appetite while weakening cognitive control. Long-term exercise could serve as a double-whammy by promoting weight loss and self-control.

More than one-third of Americans are currently clinically defined as obese, as reported by The Dallas Express. Childhood obesity is also rising, with Texas reportedly ranked eighth in the United States for the highest rate.

Still, new findings on the relationship between physical activity and the brain should encourage long-term exercise.

For instance, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, who studies healthy aging and cognition at the University of British Columbia, told Insider that regular exercise over time helps brains better defend against the deterioration that comes with age.

Physical activity promotes neuron growth in the hippocampus, the brain region dealing with memory. The newly produced cells fuse with the hippocampus, expanding its physical size and improving recollection.

The prefrontal cortex can also experience improved connection speeds and growth from physical activity. Brain cells in the region called axons undergo thickening when stimulated by exercise.

“The axon is covered with an insulation substance called myelin that basically makes the electrical activity through the neuron go as quickly as possible,” said Suzuki. “The more myelin, the faster it goes… With exercise, you get more myelin.”

Both the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus risk deteriorating over time, but exercise can slow and even reverse this degradation by “building a big, fat, fluffy hippocampus” and “a big, fluffy prefrontal cortex,” said Suzuki.

She stressed that exercise is “not curing dementia” and “not curing aging.” Still, recent studies have shown links between diabetes and a heightened risk of dementia, as previously reported in The Dallas Express.

The link between the diseases does give cause for concern, especially now that more than 34 million Americans already have a diabetes diagnosis, according to the American Diabetes Association. Furthermore, the prevalence of obesity has skyrocketed in recent years, further highlighting the necessity of long-term exercise.

In addition to exercise, proper diet and attention to nutritional needs are important. Local dietitian Isabella Ferrari told The Dallas Express that her clients’ most common obstacle is time.

“A lot of people, for example, have super long commutes,” she said. “They don’t get home until six, and the last thing they want to do is work out or meal prep or go to the store and spend two hours cooking and cleaning.”

Still, for those that do manage to budget time to work out, Suzuki suggested that changing the way they exercise could also be beneficial. It is understood that learning new skills benefits our minds, so attempting new movements may be wise.

“If you just do the same exercise over and over, and it becomes more rote, and it’s not challenging in any new way, is it better to challenge yourself and to try something harder?” she asked. “Yeah, it is. It will engage a larger or a different part of your brain, and it’s always good to mix things up that way.”

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