We all know that regular exercise is a major player in our ability to achieve a healthy weight, a longer life expectancy and a reduced risk of chronic diseases -- from cancers to heart disease to diabetes. And, as you've likely discovered, it makes you look good too. But when you hit the gym, your biceps and lats aren't the only muscles you're working. Mounting research shows that aerobic activity may be one of the most important factors in maintaining a sharp brain.
Just last week, a study revealed that exercise helped a group of men learn a new skill through enhanced "motor memory." But that's not the first or last word in the brawn-brain connection. Here are seven ways that getting your blood pumping is the best chance for gaining mental power too:
It Sharpens Thinking
Earlier this year, Dartmouth researchers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/31/exercise-makes-you-smarter-adhd-research_n_1528383.html">added support to mounting evidence about the way that exercise affects learning</a> and mental acuity: it boosts the production of “brain derived neurotrophic factor" -- or BDNF – a protein that is thought to help with mental acuity, learning and memory.
It May Alleviate Childhood ADHD Symptoms
In the same Dartmouth study, the researchers discovered that, thanks to the BDNF boost, exercise also helped to <a href="http://www.wired.com/playbook/2012/05/exercise-memory-and-adhd/">alleviate ADHD-like symptoms in juvenile rats</a>. Since BDNF is involved in the brain's development and growth of new cells, the effect was more profound on the younger rats, with their still-developing brains and more rapid cell turnover, compared to adult rats.
It Helps You Learn New Tricks
Even one exercise session can help you retain physical skills by enhancing what's commonly known as "muscle memory" or "motor memory," according to <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3433433/">new research published in <em>PlosOne</em>.</a> <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/26/how-exercise-can-help-you-master-new-skills/">As the New York <em>Times</em> reported</a>, men who were taught to follow a complicated pattern on a computer and subsequently exercised were better able to remember the pattern in subsequent days than the men who didn't exercise after the initial squiggle test.
It Supports Problem-Solving
In one study, mice that exercised by running not only generated new neurons, but those neurons lit up when the mice performed unfamiliar tasks like <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-exercise-could-lead-to-a-better-brain.html?pagewanted=all">navigating a new environment</a>.
It Helps Alleviate Symptoms Of Depression
When you exercise, your pituitary gland releases endorphins to help mitigate the physical stress and pain you are experiencing. But those endorphins may play a more important and longer-lasting role: they could help alleviate symptoms of depression, <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression-and-exercise/MH00043">according to a Mayo Clinic report</a>.
It Reduces Stress
Although exercising raises our levels of cortisol -- the hormone that causes physical stress and is even associated with long-term memory impairment -- its overall effect is one of a stress reducer. That's because exercise increases the <a href="http://www.hormones.gr/57/article/article.html">body's threshold for cortisol</a>, making you more inured to stressors.
It Helps Delay Age-Associated Memory Loss
As we get older, an area of the brain called the hippocampus shrinks. That's why age is associated with memory loss across the board. However, profound memory loss -- such as in dementia and Alzheimer's disease patients -- is also contributed to by accelerated hippocampus shrinking. Luckily, the hippocampus is also an area of the brain that generate new neurons throughout a lifespan. And, <a href="http://www.npr.org/2011/02/21/133777018/aerobic-exercise-may-improve-memory-in-seniors">the research shows</a>, exercise promotes new neural growth in this area.