The brain is probably the most important organ in our body. Or at least the brain itself would/does argue that. The central nervous system manages all the background systems that keep our body alive while simultaneously controlling complex movement functions and cognitive demands.
We hold the brain in good standing because of all the tasks it allows us to complete. Although there is a less common story of why we have brains at all. Taking time to evaluate the reasons to the existence of brains can help prove the need of physical activity for optimal health.
Classically, many people see the brain as the starting point of all thoughts, physiological processes, and actions. We have a mind. Our brain tells our body what our mind wants to do. We then go complete the task at hand until our brain gives us our next task to complete. This top down hierarchy can be seen throughout history when discussing the philosophy of the mind, or existence of our consciousness. You have probably heard the term “I think therefore I am” by Rene Descartes which sums up the classic thought process when comparing our brains and our bodies.
But that may be a little backwards to how our brains came into existence in the first place. Recent research suggests that our brains came into existence because we needed an organ that could help us navigate our environment. Without a brain, we would be left without a centralized system for organizing or navigating the world. The brain came into existence because of our need for movement throughout our environment. The brain existing before a body of cells to be organized seems a little backwards when you think of the how we evolved but this story still persists when you see the brain as the king of our physiological systems.
This fact is most obviously applied with the example of plant life. They don’t move of their own free will and in turn don’t have a brain to help execute these tasks. A more surprising example is the animal called the sea squirt.
The sea squirt is an invertebrate residing in the oceans all over the world. In the early stages of its life, it will swim around until it finds a place to attach to live the rest of its life cycle. During its movement stage it has a rudimentary brain with 170 neurons compared with the billions in the human brain. It still applies the function of helping the sea squirt navigate it’s environment. Once it attaches itself to a surface it will no longer move for the rest of its life. What does it do with its brain once it no longer moves?
It eats it.
The sea squirt does not need to move anymore and thus does not have a use for a brain. This relationship between movement and the brain is intrinsic to how we should think of exercise. This relationship helps prove why exercise can help us maintain brain health throughout our lifetime.
Why does the brain function optimally under exercise? Let’s look a little into that.
Our brain has two factors when it comes to maintaining and improving brain health. Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) and Nerve Growth Factor (NGF). Both these factors are used in processes to maintain and grow new neurons in our brain and central nervous system.
In a study on rats, it was seen that a prescribed exercise regimen increased BDNF and NGF compared with control specimens. The rats also showed improved memory scores after the exercise trials. BUT the rats returned to control levels when they were de-trained.
This research has moved towards human trials with a study on 132 people aged 20 -67. Where participants saw increased executive functions after 6 months of prescribed exercise when compared with a tone and stretch group. This research is still quite new, so larger trials will be needed to show a true correlation between brain function and exercise.
Looking at what we have learned so far, it seems that our brain health is connected to how much we move around. Our brains were created so that we could move and interpret the world around us. And to maintain this functionality we must keep it active and healthy via regular activity.
Applying a little bit of physical activity in our days may make our brains function better. This can be a simple as walking to work or finding an activity you love to do with friends. You may find yourself doing a little bit better in cognitive function for it.
Confused about where to start with exercise? Register for the Exercise without the Confusion seminar on February 23rd. Click the button below!
1. Aloe L, Rocco ML, Bianchi P, Manni L. Nerve growth factor: from the early discoveries to the potential clinical use. J Transl Med. 2012;10:239. Published 2012 Nov 29. doi:10.1186/1479-5876-10-239
2. Bathina S, Das UN. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor and its clinical implications. Arch Med Sci. 2015;11(6):1164-78.
3. Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults. Neurology Jan 2019
4. This Ted Talk.