Written by Carlene Fallica, MS, BCBA, LBA
There are numerous acute and chronic beneficial effects of exercise related to several cognitive, behavioral, and socio-emotional functions. There is growing evidence and an increase in published articles examining the relationship between physical fitness, physical activity, and academic performance in children. In addition, research provides evidence that physical exercise represents a promising
alternative or additional treatment option for maintaining overall health.
Regular exercise helps prevent and manage health concerns & protects against many chronic diseases including: stroke, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, depression & anxiety, many types of cancer, arthritis and falls. Exercise helps to lower blood pressure, improve heart health, boost high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol, and decrease unhealthy triglycerides. Physical activity aids in weight management by preventing
excess weight gain and helps maintain weight loss. Exercise improves and helps regulate sleep. Research shows that children with regular bedtime routines get to sleep sooner and awaken less often during the night than those without them. In addition, improved sleep hygiene may have some impact on next day attention. Increased physical activity is associated with better executive functioning, including inhibition, planning, working memory and processing speed, in children with ADHD (Gapin & Etnier, 2010). Increased neurotransmitters in the brain, reduced feelings of stress, anxiety & depression, a decrease in stress hormones, and improved mood are also associated with regular exercise. Muscle strength and balance are maintained with exercise, as well as improved joint pain and stiffness. Improved cognitive function for all age groups including long-term and
short-term memory and neuron health are significant neuropsychological benefits.
The global impact of exercise on the brain involves improved cognitive functioning, neurogenesis, neuroplasticity and neurochemistry. The increase in heart rate and breathing, oxygen in the bloodstream and flow of blood to the brain along with the release of neurotransmitters allows for an increase in oxygen and nutrients, leading to the production and growth of new neurons (neurogenesis). Neurotrophins are proteins that aid neuron survival & function. Both neurotrophins and hormones in the brain keep neurons healthy, promote growth of new neurons, improve neural connections and increase brain volume. Neuroplasticity, synaptic plasticity and/or alterations to the strength of already existing synapses improve how existing neurons work.
BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is a protein that promotes the survival of nerve cells by playing a role in the growth, maturation (differentiation), and maintenance of these cells. BDNF is crucial for learning and adaptation. BDNF upregulates (increase in the number of receptors) neurotrophins, which support the survival and differentiation of neurons in the developing brain, dendritic branching, and synaptic machinery in the adult brain. In the brain, the BDNF protein is active at the connections between nerve cells (synapses), where cell-to-cell communication occurs. The synapses can change and adapt over time in response to experience, a characteristic called synaptic plasticity. The BDNF protein helps regulate synaptic plasticity, which is important for learning and memory. Certain types of physical exercise have been shown to significantly increase BDNF synthesis in the human brain, a phenomenon which is partly responsible for exercise-induced neurogenesis and improvements in cognitive function. BDNF may have long term benefits including neural plasticity. These sustained benefits of exercise are best achieved with 30 minutes of moderate/intense or 10-15 minutes of high intensity. Our behavior has an impact on the level of BDNF in the brain. It is important to monitor and maintain healthy and appropriate levels of exercise, stress, sleep and nutrition. The primary drive for changing our brain and maintaining overall health is our behavior.