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Sam the Neuroscientist: Physical Fitness and Brain Health

May 05, 2022 4 min read

Sam the Neuroscientist: Physical Fitness and Brain Health

We all know that exercise improves our physical fitness, but staying in shape can also boost our brainpower. Researchers continue to figure out how, with evidence pointing to several explanations.

First, to maintain normal cognitive function, the brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and other chemicals, delivered via its abundant blood vessels. Physical exercise—and even just simple activities such as washing dishes or vacuuming—helps to circulate nutrient-rich blood efficiently throughout the body and keeps the blood vessels healthy.

Exercise increases the creation of mitochondria - the cellular structures that generate and maintain our energy - both in our muscles and in our brain, which may explain the mental edge we often experience after a workout. Studies also show that getting the heart rate up enhances neurogenesis - the ability to grow new brain cells - in adults.



Imaging Studies and Brain Health

Scientific evidence based on neuroimaging approaches over the last decade has demonstrated the efficacy of physical activity improving cognitive health across the human lifespan.

Aerobic fitness spares age-related loss of brain tissue during aging, and enhances functional aspects of higher order regions involved in the control of cognition. More active or fit individuals are capable of allocating greater attentional resources toward the environment and are able to process information more quickly. In turn, animal studies have shown that exercise has a benevolent action on health and plasticity of the nervous system.

New evidence indicates that exercise exerts its effects on cognition by affecting pathways related to the management of energy metabolism and synaptic plasticity. An important instigator in the neural pathways stimulated by exercise is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which acts to promote the survival of nerve cells by playing a role in the growth, maturation, and maintenance of these cells.

Recent studies show that exercise collaborates with other aspects of lifestyle to influence the molecular substrates of cognition. In particular, select dietary factors share similar mechanisms with exercise, and in some cases they can complement the action of exercise.

Therefore, exercise and dietary management appear as a non-invasive and effective strategy to counteract neurological and cognitive disorders.



Exercise Duration and Mechanism

Previous work by the authors of this study ( has shown that mild physical exercise can promote better memory in rodents. Here, they use functional MRI in healthy young adults to assess the immediate impact of a short bout (10 minutes) of mild exercise on the brain mechanisms supporting memory processes.

They found that this brief intervention rapidly enhanced highly detailed memory processing and resulted in elevated activity in the hippocampus and the surrounding regions, as well as increased coupling between the hippocampus and cortical regions previously known to support detailed memory processing. These findings represent a mechanism by which mild exercise, on par with yoga and tai chi, may improve memory.

This is a particularly interesting finding. It is very clear that exercise conveys a multitude of benefits to mental and physical health, including clear positive impacts on brain structure and function.

This study takes things further and elucidates clear timeframe as well as mechanism via which these effects are conferred. It is encouraging to see positive alterations in brain structure, allowing improved cognitive performance after as little as 10 minutes of exercise. Additionally, this isn’t from high-intensity and demanding anaerobic exercise. Low intensity exercise is entirely sufficient to produce neuronal growth and structural differences in brain chemistry that improve function.


The Role of Ārepa

Exposure to stress is related to neurogenesis as stressful experiences decrease the number of new neurons in the dentate gyrus region of the hippocampus. L-theanine has been found to promote neurogenesis.

Studies have evaluated the effects of L-theanine on the dentate gyrus in mouse models. Mice subjected to psychosocial stress had a decrease in the number of cells labelled a marker of DNA synthesis, indicating a decline in neuronal proliferation in the brain. The ingestion of L-theanine in mice, before and after stress exposure, was able to restore this deficit.

These results suggest that L-theanine has the functionality to facilitate neuroblasts to new mature neurons and thereby modulate the intact neuronal network functioning in the adult brain.

Anthocyanins, one of the key components in blackcurrants, have also been shown to help induce the formation of new neurons. Again this has been shown in the hippocampus, aligning their consumption with improved memory.

The ingredients in Ārepa show great overlap with the beneficial potential outlined in the study above. Both short bursts in low-intensity exercise and blackcurrants and L-theanine are simple, yet scientifically-proven ways to support healthy neurological function.

Together, they likely modulate the pathways involved in new cell formation, particularly in the hippocampus. This knowledge provides a simple way to promote an important part of brain health and cognition. Ārepa and a walk, for example, is a straightforward intervention, improving your memory – a key component of daily mental performance and wellbeing.

 Auckland based? Book yourself in to one of our weekly HIIT classes held at Ārepa HQ!



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