By Daniel G. Amen, MD

Physical exercise is a powerful brain booster. Here are some of the many ways that physical exercise benefits the brain so you can make better decisions about what and how much you eat.

Increase circulation. Physical activity improves your heart’s ability to pump blood throughout your body, which increases blood flow to your brain. Better blood flow equals better overall brain function.

Grow more new brain cells. Exercise increases great stuff in your body called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is like an anti-aging wonder drug that is involved with the growth of new brain cells. Think of BDNF as a sort of Miracle-Gro for your brain.

BDNF promotes learning and memory and makes your brain stronger. Specifically, exercise generates new brain cells in the temporal lobes (involved in memory) and the prefrontal cortex (involved in planning and judgment). Having a strong PFC and temporal lobes is critical for successful weight loss.

A better memory helps you remember to do the important things that will help you lose weight, for example, making an appointment with your physician to check your important health numbers, shopping for the foods that are the best for your brain, and taking the daily supplements that will benefit your brain type. Planning and judgment are vital because you need to plan meals and snacks in advance, and you need to make the best decisions throughout the day if you want to lose the love handles.

The increased production of BDNF you get from exercise is only temporary. The new brain cells survive for about four weeks then die off unless they are stimulated with mental exercise or social interaction. This means you have to exercise on a regular basis in order to benefit from a continual supply of new brain cells. It also explains why people who work out at the gym and then go to the library are smarter than people who only work out at the gym.

Enhance brainpower. No matter how old you are, exercise increases your memory, your ability to think clearly, and your ability to plan. Decades of research have found that physical activity leads to better grades and higher test scores among students at all levels. It also boosts memory in young adults and improves frontal lobe function in older adults.

Getting your body moving also protects the short-term memory structures in the temporal lobes (hippocampus) from high-stress conditions. Stress causes the adrenal glands to produce excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol, which has been found to kill cells in the hippocampus and impair memory. In fact, people with Alzheimer’s disease have higher cortisol levels than normal aging people.

Ward off memory loss and dementia. Exercise helps prevent, delay, and reduce the cognitive impairment that comes with aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. In 2010 alone, more than a dozen studies reported that physical exercise results in a reduction in cognitive dysfunction in older people.

One of them came from a group of Canadian researchers who looked at physical activity over the course of the lifetime of 9,344 women. Specifically, they looked at the women’s activity levels as teenagers, at age 30, at age 50, and in late-life. Physical activity as a teenager was associated with the lowest incidence of cognitive impairment later in life, but physical activity at ANY age correlated to reduced risk.

This study tells me that it is never too late to start an exercise program.

Protect against brain injuries. Exercise strengthens the brain and enhances its ability to fight back against the damaging effects of brain injuries. This is so critical because brain injuries—even mild ones—can take the prefrontal cortex offline, which reduces self-control, weakens your ability to say “no” to cravings, and increases the need for immediate gratification as in “I must have that bacon cheeseburger RIGHT THIS MINUTE!”

You don’t have to lose consciousness to suffer from brain trauma. Even mild head injuries that do not typically show up on the structural brain imaging tests can seriously impact your life and increase your risk for overeating and other behavior problems. That is because trauma can affect not only the brain’s hardware or physical health, but also its software or how it functions. Head injuries can disrupt and alter neurochemical functioning, resulting in emotional and behavioral problems, including an increased risk for eating problems and substance abuse.

Each year, 2 million new brain injuries are reported, and millions more go unreported. Brain trauma is especially common among people with addictions of all kinds, including food addiction.

At Sierra Tucson, a world-renowned treatment center for addictions and behavioral disorders, our brain imaging technology has been used since 2009. One of the most surprising things the brain scans have shown, according to Robert Johnson, MD, the facility’s Medical Director, is a much higher than expected incidence of mild traumatic brain injury among their patients.

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