For a long time the brain has been considered to be merely a tissue, hardly affected by physical activity. However, studies into the effects of exercise on cognitive abilities have repeatedly shown that physical exercise boosts the brain’s performance tremendously!
Studies with magnetic resonance pointed out that physically fit people can use certain areas of the brain much more effectively than untrained subjects, who need to activate additional areas for the same tasks – and even take longer to process their cognitive capacities having done this! Even today it is not possible to explain this effect with a concrete cause. Depending on the object of investigation (e.g. memory, strategic, organizational, logical and spatial thinking, creativity, concentration and attention, reaction speed or vocabulary) the decisive factors to influence improvement vary greatly. However, in the end, all come to the same positive result: Sport makes you smarter!
A healthy mind lives in a healthy body. The Roman poet Juvenal recognized this connection even 2000 years ago – all without modern medical studies and research methods. The only thing that can be known for sure is that improving brain power through sports activity is a complex interaction of many different factors. In the following, we present you with five possible factors:
Increased blood flow
The most obvious reason for increased brain power is that intense, regular exercise not only ensures a better blood flow to the muscles, but to all organs due to the strengthening of the heart, blood circulation and lungs to improving their efficiency. The brain just works better when supplied with more oxygen and nutrients via blood circulation. We feel more alert and focused – also in the long term! Regular exercise increases metabolic activity in the long-term and at rest – your mind benefits from this also! The effect becomes even more significant if you supply your body and your brain with fresh oxygen, that is to say if you train outdoors.
Increased dopamine level
While exercising the brain releases a lot of dopamine, even after just a few minutes of training. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which ensures that nerve cells can communicate with each other. During exercise it is required, amongst other things, in order to coordinate movements accurately. The more complex and intense the exercise, the higher the concentration of this hormone. The perceived effect is that you are more alert and more focused. Regular exercise permanently increases the dopamine level in many regions of the brain – even outside of actual training sessions. In the long run, you will be more receptive in all situations.
The growth factor BDNF
Muscles are not only a musculoskeletal system that consumes energy. In fact, the musculature itself is an organ which also produces substances. One of these is the protein BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is needed to form new neurons and synapses in the brain. The performance of the brain literally grows with this protein! In physically active people, BDNF levels in the blood increase, positively affecting the hippocampus which enlarges plastically. The hippocampus is active inter alia used when we are remembering or learning, and thus the interface for many brain activities.
Movement – a real feat of the brain
In addition to the blood vessels that are responsible for the exchange of messenges between the brain and muscles, the nerves play a crucial role in the interaction of movement patterns, muscle function and mental performance. They distribute the electrical stimuli emitted by the brain to the muscles and thus give the signal for contraction.
Depending on the intensity and complexity of an exercise, the brain accomplishes more or less high performance. Some movements like running are very complex, but almost automated. The motor cortex, which is responsible for the coordination of movements takes on much of the work. The more powerful the movement, the higher the frequency of the transmitted pulse. The more muscles need to be moved at the same time, the more the brain must coordinate. Initially, the motor cortex needs the assistance of other brain regions, for which first new connections must be created. In some movements up to 600 muscles are contracted at once. These highly complex motion sequences are a real masterpiece of your head! Especially in the case of fast, powerful complex movements, which are a real challenge for our brain! But the brain works like a muscle: It needs to be challenged, to become better!
Training – rebooting the brain
Over time, however, unusual movements become easier and run automatically. Just remember your first burpees, what you had to watch out for and how they are now running – quite naturally and without too much thought. The reason is that the motor cortex learns to take on more work with each repetition. It is responsible for ensuring that simple movements become complex movement patterns, while the prefrontal cortex is responsible for logical thinking, organization and planning. The more often a movement sequence is performed, the lower the workload for the prefrontal area, so it can relax in the meantime. The effect of this is similar to rebooting a computer: If the activity of the prefrontal cortex is temporarily shut down, we can concentrate better during the movement and think more clearly afterwards. This is especially relevant in stressful learning or labor intensive phases, during which it is often extremely helpful to switch off temporarily and start all over again!
What can I do to exploit these effects even more?
In the beginning you had to focus and concentrate mentally during training. Since then, the exercises become second nature, allowing some regions of the brain to work less than they needed to when you started Freeletics. This is a good thing, primarily because the brain needs periods of both rest and effort. Nevertheless expose your brain to new stimuli now and then. Change your training environment from time to time and train at other locations. If you usually exercise alone, join a group. If you normally do your training in the evening, complete a session before breakfast. Freeletics should remain challenging and exciting – also for the mind. Sometimes a change of location or time can actually work wonders and push you to new Personal Bests.