I enjoy exercising, but I am not one to go to the gym and run aimlessly for an hour on a treadmill. My favourite way of exercising is being outdoors – whether it’s taking a long walk in the country, cycling through the woods or playing tennis. If the weather does not permit for the above activities (which is often the case when living in the UK), then you will find me playing badminton or swimming. But that is about the extent of my physical activities.
But the subject of exercise has come more into the forefront of my mind recently as I’ve been studying more about how the human brain works. Whilst doing so, I came across a gene called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor); and if anything is going to get me exercising more, it’s the thought of what BDNF is doing in my brain.
Most people are aware that exercise releases certain neurotransmitters in the brain that alleviate pain – but neuroscience is also uncovering that exercise is one of the few ways that our brain can generate new neurons (in a process that is called neurogenesis). This is a fairly new discovery (since around 1998) as it was once believed that once areas of the brain were damaged, there was no way of repairing them.
Now, scientists have discovered that the brain does change throughout life, and can possibly repair itself as well as be enhanced by healthy activities including exercise and proper nutrition. Exercise also leads to effects on the brain in terms of mood enhancement and endorphin relief – which in turn leads to better and more adaptive cognitive functioning and BDNF promotes neurogenesis and acts as a protective mechanism from stress and its related hormones. And the good news is that we can do all of this ourselves – without the aid of any drugs or machines.
BDNF (through neurogenesis) also helps to strengthen the connections between the neural pathways, creating a denser network that is able to store more information and prevent disorders including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Alzheimer’s disease from occurring later in life. And since the brain begins to lose nerve tissue after the age of 30, it makes us more vulnerable to the above diseases.
I think, therefore, for my brain’s sake, that I could perhaps learn to love the treadmill once in a while on those dark, rainy days. Somehow, just knowing about how exercise affects the brain makes me willing to take more of it.