Why Is Exercise And Good Nutrition So Important For A Healthy Brain?

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Everyone knows the importance of exercising and maintaining a balanced diet for our overall well-being. They offer an array of benefits to meet one’s goal, which could be to lose weight, gain weight, lose body fat, build muscle mass, or simply remain fit. Quite often, these two factors are viewed from just one perspective: how they physically change our bodies. But They also change us mentally, emotionally, socially, and our behavior. One aspect, that is usually shadowed, is the impact of exercise and nutrition on our brain, which will be briefly covered in this article from a Neuropsychological perspective.

Exercising has been, correlated with the reduction of a host of physical and mental disorders. There is ample evidence in the scientific literature, which supports that physical activity can limit the incidence of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, breast and colon cancer, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety, and clinical depression. Some reputed Clinical Psychologists in the USA are now incorporating exercise as an intervention to treat numerous mental health disorders. They have found that this novel addition to the standard ‘talk Therapy’ has accelerated clients’ mental health and well-being.

The most common perception of nutrition among scholars was to provide energy and building materials to the human body. However, it can also be used to protect us against diseases, which are only now being investigated by scientists. A combination of exercise and nutrition is one of the best possible interventions to prevent and reverse any damage to the body. Researchers have also found that brain function is significantly, influenced through exercise and nutritional interventions.

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How does Exercise influence Brain Structure?

Exercise changes our brains in various ways. It changes our cortical and sub-cortical regions by building greater neural networks along with the release of different neurotransmitters. A recent study found that the volume of our hippocampus, which is an area extremely important for learning and memory, is much greater in physically fit adults when compared to non-physically fit adults even after matching for their age. Another study that focused on children found that numerous brain regions developed differently in physically fit children when compared to non-physically fit children, concluding that the former had a healthier brain development. The region responsible for cognitive control and inhibition, the dorsal striatum, was much larger in physically fit children. In 2010, Raji et al. studied gray and white matter atrophy in 94 adults using functional magnetic resonance imaging.

They found that atrophy of the frontal, temporal, and sub-cortical brain regions was much greater in overweight and obese participants. This means that non-physically fit people are more prone to smaller brain volumes and diseases such as Type-2 Diabetes and Cognitive Dysfunction. Since brain plasticity occurs in all age groups, exercise training can influence brain morphology even as we age. Hippocampal and medial temporal lobe volumes are larger in physically fit individuals and exercising enhances hippocampal perfusion. A 1-year randomized control trial with 120 older adults aged between 55-80 years was conducted by Erickson et al. and they found that aerobic exercise training led to an increase in the anterior hippocampus which improved their spatial memory. This exercise training increased the hippocampus volume by 2% and the volume declined in the control group (wherein participants did not exercise).

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Relationship between Nutrition and Cognition

Since our brain is constantly working, it demands a lot of oxygen and energy. Scholars have found that nutrition not only alters the brain’s architecture, but also alters its functioning from moment to moment. Scientists have recently conducted numerous experimental studies to study the benefits of polyphenols on our brains. Polyphenols are dense micronutrients that are found in plant-derived foods and are a rich source of antioxidants. Polyphenols run their neuroprotective actions by protecting our neurons against harmful neurotoxins, they suppress neuroinflammation and also boost learning, memory, and cognitive function.

Common examples of polyphenols are fruits, tea, coffee, cocoa, red wine, parsley, celery, soy products, citrus fruits, herbs, green tea, dark chocolates, berries, kiwis, plums, apples, grapes, and peanuts. Research has found that polyphenols are also useful in reducing the risk of developing dementia and increasing cognitive health as we age. In the geriatric population, a diet rich in flavonoids (a sub-group of polyphenols) is associated with improved cognitive abilities. The latest research suggests that dietary-derived flavonoids contain the potential to improve human memory and neurocognitive performance as they protect vulnerable neurons, strengthen existing neuronal networks, and stimulates neuronal regeneration.

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What does current research have to say about Cognition, Nutrition, and Exercise?

After studying different patterns of lifestyle, upbringing, and habits of children for decades, scholars now indicate that over 80% of children are growing increasingly sedentary and unfit across the globe. This lifestyle projects them at a higher risk for Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity. Many cross-sectional and longitudinal studies have found a strong correlation between being overweight and poor academic performance in children. Aerobic fitness tends to improve one’s cognition and academic performance. A child’s cognitive ability and school performance depend on their physical condition as well, which is quite often overlooked. Proper nutrition aids neurogenesis (creation of neurons), which is extremely crucial during brain maturation. Our diet has a direct impact on neuronal functioning and plasticity. Omega-3- fatty acids (present in flax seeds, chia seeds, avocados, sprouts, tuna, etc) play an important role in intercellular signaling events which further impacts synaptic functioning.

Relation to brain health

On the contrary, diets rich in calories, sugar, and fat are detrimental for the brain as they increase oxidative stress which reduces synaptic plasticity and cognition. Exercise tends to interact with dietary interventions by elevating positive effects on the brain and curbing the ill effects of a high-fat diet. Exercise and diet management go hand-in-hand if one wishes to extract the highest quality of neural health. Evidence stemming from numerous studies has found that cognitive functions such as processing speed, short-term memory, working memory, and long-term memory deteriorate as we age. These age-associated changes in cognition have been correlated with alterations in the brain structure and function and physical activity can aid in reversing this damage across all age groups.

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Therefore, to conclude, the benefits of regular exercise and good nutrition are beyond our imagination. Research in this field is expanding at an alarming rate and doctors are stressing the importance of regular exercise now more than ever. Nutrition and Exercise are powerful tools that can enhance brain function in numerous ways. In the near future, mental health experts also aim to include exercise as a therapeutic intervention after carefully understanding its benefits on our brain and mental health. To lead a brain-healthy life, it therefore becomes imperative to incorporate exercise and balanced nutrition in our lives.

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