Exercise-Induced Neuroplasticity - Creating New Neural Pathways


Published: 13 August 2017

Exercise is Food

Exercise is food… for the brain. Once upon a time, it was thought that the adult brain was ‘fixed’ and incapable of producing new neural pathways. We now know better.

The brain is capable of neurogenesis, especially in the hippocampus and cerebral ventricles, and – yes! – exercise stimulates this growth. In a way, exercise signals cells to start acting like stem cells, capable of new growth. In addition, exercise increases the brain’s ‘baseline activity’ which also stimulates cellular growth.

But, the brain doesn’t need new growth in order to stimulate better cognition; the brain is incredibly underutilised. In other words, we don’t operate at anything close to max capacity.

And that means that the brain can always find ways to overcome obstacles which life throws into its way (obstacles like a stroke or brain injury or even the effects of ageing) through something called plasticity.

What is plasticity? When specific pathways in the brain are blocked or damaged, the brain is capable of utilising alternate means of circumventing those blockages which results in the establishment of new pathways, as well as increasing the brain’s myelin sheathing, thus enhancing transmission speed of electrical impulses and improving its function.

Think of it this way: Exercise sets into motion an interactive cascade of growth factor that has the net effect of stimulating plasticity, enhancing cognitive function . . . [and] stimulating neurogenesis (Wilcox et al. 2009).

Amazingly, research has found that even those who have already developed symptoms of dementia can benefit from exercise to improve cognitive function and allow them to be better able to perform activities of daily living (ADL).

Exercise-Induced Neuroplasticity - Creating New Neural Pathways neurons

Aerobic Exercise

As spectacularly headlined online, studies show that regular exercise can stop brain shrinkage, even if you “have dementia in your genetic pool” (Macrae 2014). In one fascinating study, seniors in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s who exercised at least three times a week, even with exercise as mundane as swimming, cycling, or walking, showed a dramatic increase in brain activity.

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of studies cited in systematic reviews (including those done by the Cochrane Library, the gold standard of research) that support the idea that good old fashion, regular aerobic training has been shown to improve many aspects of cognitive function: e.g. memory, decision making, problem solving and attention.

But what about other kinds of exercise? Does exercise have to be aerobic? Does it have to be regular?

Weight Training

Resistance exercise has long been seen as the lowly stepsister of aerobic exercise. Well, it may not get invited to the ball but it isn’t sitting home crying over it!

Specific resistance exercises have been found to combat cognitive decline among the senior set. Weight training, even as infrequently as once or twice a week, has been shown to improve something called “executive function” in seniors.

  1. Well said. But what exactly is an executive function and why should you care about it?

Executive functions are functions of the brain. For instance,

  • When you show the ability to selectively pay attention to the cashier at the bank (and ignore the super-rude teenager on her iPhone next to you), you are practicing an executive function known as inhibitory control.
  • When you don’t snap at the girl asking if she was raised by animals, you are resisting temptations and thinking before you act, also part of inhibitory control.
  • Whenever you have an “aha!” moment where you think outside the box, imagining a world where all iPhone-users lived in their own off-world colony, you are practicing an executive function known as cognitive flexibility.
  • And when you show the capacity to hold information in your mind and manipulate it, you are practicing your working memory.

All of these are executive functions and they are the core foundational elements of reasoning, planning and creative problem solving. And the latest research supports the use of weight training, with machines or free weights, as a way to improve these functions.

But strength training doesn’t just make you think faster. It may just make your day brighter. Exercising skeletal muscles help the body purge a protein associated with depression. Look at the body’s ability to detoxify itself during periods of stress. Muscles which are consistently exercised even show the ability to mobilise enzymes to join the fight against depression.

Dual Task Training

As just mentioned, the act of performing physical exercise can improve brain health. But all exercise is not created equally. Research has shown performing dual tasks (a cognitive task coupled with a physical task) may be just the ticket when working out to improve cognition. Instead of just “exercising”, try these Brain Gym ideas:

  • Problem solve different ways to achieve movement. Ask “How can I get from here to there without standing up?” or “How can I make the least amount of noise?” and then explore all the different ways you can move.
  • Have each activity you perform include a cognitive challenge as well as a physical one (try counting backwards by 3’s or reciting directions from your garage to work while standing on one leg…. It makes it ever so much harder!)
  • Count exercises, multiply repetitions, recite while moving, and/or move different body parts in opposing directions.
  • Use entrainment, which is a physical and cognitive trait often associated with perception of music; using entrainment, you move your body parts to the beat of the music or to a certain rhythm
  • Perform tasks that involve using both sides of the brain at the same time such as moving both arms, but in opposite directions at the same time, walking forward while moving arms to the side, or jumping up and down while moving arms to the side, alternating with forward and backward.
  • Always push your boundaries. Begin with single part tasks and then as mastery increases, gradually add parts to the sequence. Increase your speed gradually as quality and control of movement increases.

No matter how beneficial exercise is, it does nothing if people do not want to do it. Instead of thinking of exercise as a limited category (swimming, running, walking, biking), it’s time to start looking at a wider arena.

Like to dance? Consider taking up Cuban-style salsa (known as Rueda) or New England contradance, both dance styles where the entire room of people dance together. Do you enjoy martial arts? Then consider taking up Ai Chi, known as flowing aquatic energy, a form of martial arts performed in warm water. Or Yoga. Or circus-style gymnastics. The brain is wide-open to new possibilities… it just needs your body to take the lead.

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