I’m a huge fan of research on brain health and was pleased to read recently that cycling can improve brain health through neuroplasticity. This is where brain cells can more easily respond to disease or injury. Of course it’s not just cycling that benefits your brain, but all aerobic exercise.
I read about this in a recent article by Yen Ying Lim who is a Research Fellow at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. I was so impressed by what I read that I actually signed up to be part of the study. Click through to the original article if you’d like to do the same. In the meantime, here’s a cut down version of what she had to say.
According to Yen Yim Lim there’s a growing body of research to suggest there are a range of lifestyle changes we can adopt to help enhance our brain function and exercise is high on her list.
Physical activity can induce a cascade of biological processes that improve function of brain regions responsible for memory, and things such as decision making.
In particular, going for a run or bike ride (as opposed to only strength exercises such as weight training) have been shown to increase levels of “brain-derived neurotrophic factor”, a protein central to the growth and survival of brain cells. Brain imaging studies are also starting to confirm exercise training can result in a bigger hippocampus (the brain region responsible for memory) and improvements in memory.
Just as protein shakes may help muscles grow after exercise, the brain-derived neurotrophic factor may help to strengthen and generate brain cells. This in turn can increase the brain’s ability to cope with injury or disease.
So what works?
The challenge with studying the effects of lifestyle changes on brain health, particularly over a long period of time, is the large degree of overlap across all lifestyle factors. For example, engaging in physical activity will be related to better sleep and less stress – which also improve our memory and thinking function.
Similarly, better sleep is related to improved mood. It may make people feel more motivated to exercise, which may also lead to better memory and thinking function.
The extent to which we can truly determine the contribution of each lifestyle factor (sleep, physical activity, diet, social engagement) to our brain health remains limited.
But a wide range of lifestyle factors that are highly modifiable such as physical inactivity, obesity, chronic stress and high blood pressure can have far-reaching effects on our brain health. After all, it is mid-life high blood pressure, obesity and physical inactivity that can increase our risk of dementia in later life.