Aerobic exercise improves numerous aspects of cognitive control and memory function, especially when it comes to attentional control, cognitive flexibility, information processing, declarative memory capacity, spatial memory capacity, working memory capacity, and working memory updating.
Research show that physical exercise normalizes the cotransmission of glutamate and dopamine in the nucleus accumbes. 1 Glutamate is one of the most common neurochemicals in the human brain. It is an excitatory neurotransmitter necessary for many different brain functions. Glutamate is for instance involved in memory and learning.
Consistent aerobic exercise increases grey matter volume in regions of the brain associated with memory processing, cognitive control and motor function. This can be shown through neuro-imaging of the brain. The increase in volume is especially noticeable in the prefrontal cortex, the caudate nucleus and hippocampus. These areas are, among other things, important for cognitive control and memory processing.
- The prefrontal cortex is implicated in personality expression, the planning of complex cognitive behaviour, social behaviour moderation, and making decisions.
- The caudate nucleus is responsible for stimulus-response learning and inhibitory control.
- Hippocampus is responsible for storage and consolidation of declarative memory and spatial memory.
The shrinking of the hippocampus (and the subsequent memory impairment) that tends to occur naturally in late adulthood can be countered with regular physical exercise. When 120 adults were studied using neuro-imaging, those who regularly participated in aerobic exercise showed an increase in hippocapus volume over a one-year period. The average increase for the exercise group was 2.12 percent for the left hippocampus and 1.97 percent for the right hippocampus.
- Buckley J, Cohen JD, Kramer AF, McAuley E, Mullen SP (2014). “Cognitive control in the self-regulation of physical activity and sedentary behavior”. Front Hum Neurosci. 8: 747
- Erickson KI, Hillman CH, Kramer AF (August 2015). “Physical activity, brain, and cognition”. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 4: 27–32
- Erickson KI, Leckie RL, Weinstein AM (September 2014). “Physical activity, fitness, and gray matter volume”. Neurobiol. Aging. 35 Suppl 2: S20–528
- Erickson KI, Miller DL, Roecklein KA (2012). “The aging hippocampus: interactions between exercise, depression, and BDNF”. Neuroscientist. 18 (1): 82–97
- Gomez-Pinilla F, Hillman C (January 2013). “The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities”. Compr. Physiol. 3 (1): 403–428
Aerobic exercise induce white matter growth in the anterior corpus callosum. This is an area where white matter has a tendency to shrink with age. Aerobic exercise could therefore be an important counter measure against this age-related shrinkage.2 3
As mentioned above, the prefrontal cortex is associated with personality expression, the planning of complex cognitive behaviour, social behaviour moderation, and making decisions, while the caudate nucleus is responsible for stimulus-response learning and inhibitory control.
The cingulate cortex is an integral part of the limbic system and thus involved in executive function, learning, memory, and emotion formation and processing,. In humans, it is highly influential in linking behavioural outcomes to motivation. (Example: A certain action induces a positive emotion, and this results in learning.)
1Lynch WJ, Peterson AB, Sanchez V, Abel J, Smith MA (September 2013). “Exercise as a novel treatment for drug addiction: a neurobiological and stage-dependent hypothesis”. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 37 (8): 1622–1644
2Gomez-Pinilla F, Hillman C (January 2013). “The influence of exercise on cognitive abilities”. Compr. Physiol. 3 (1): 403–428
3Valkanova V, Eguia Rodriguez R, Ebmeier KP (June 2014). “Mind over matter—what do we know about neuroplasticity in adults?”. Int Psychogeriatr. 26 (6): 891–909
4Guiney H, Machado L (February 2013). “Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations”. Psychon Bull Rev. 20 (1): 73–86
5 Erickson KI, Hillman CH, Kramer AF (August 2015). “Physical activity, brain, and cognition”. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences. 4: 27–32