Why rowing and exercise is good for your brain

Dr Gareth Turner, Physiologist with the GB Rowing Team, explores the science on why keeping active has physical and mental benefits

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Competing at BRIC (c) Nick Middleton

Physical activity lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers, in addition to improving strength and aerobic fitness. However, did you know that taking part in regular physical activity can also boost your brain power?*

In fact, there are many reasons why we should take part in regular physical activity to encourage changes in the structure and function of the brain. Advances in neuroimaging techniques have shown that exercise can lead to changes in brain function and cognition.

The specific area, found deep in the centre of the brain, is called the hippocampus – which means seahorse in Ancient Greek – as a result of its shape. As fitness improves, the structures within the brain grow, including the hippocampus.

The hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, which partially explains the memory boosting effects of improved fitness. Furthermore, aerobic exercise has been shown to help you focus and stay on task, and it can improve the attention span in children.

The hippocampus areas of the brain generate approximately 700 new brain cells every day

Researchers from the UK** used neuroimaging to scan the brain before and after six weeks of cycling for 30 minutes a day, five times a week. The group of sedentary adults demonstrated an increase in hippocampal volume after this period, which returned to its previous level after six weeks of rest.

American researchers*** also found that children aged 9-10 with high levels of fitness had a greater hippocampal volume, compared to children with a lower level of fitness.  Interestingly, the fitter children also performed better in memory recognition tasks.

The references

* Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition by Hillman et al. Nature Reviews Neuroscience (2008); 9(1), 58-65.
** Multi-modal characterisation of rapid anterior hippocampal volume increase associated with aerobic exercise by Thomas et al. Neuroimage (2016); 131, 162-170.
*** A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in pre-adolescent children by Thomas Chaddock et al. Brain Research (2010); 1358, 172-183.

The hippocampus areas of the brain generate approximately 700 new brain cells every day, although most of these do not survive. The new cells need a great deal of support to grow and become active. Those that do survive can take weeks or months to become mature and strong. It is believed that the best way to generate a surplus of new hippocampal neurons is with aerobic exercise. Furthermore, hippocampal neurons can grow taller, larger and stronger by getting the right nutrition, plenty of oxygen and stimulation.

Sometimes it may feel tempting to avoid exercise when challenged at work, snowed under with exams or during the dark, cold winter months.

However, exercise can have a profound effect on your brain, which can boost your memory, improve your concentration and slow down cognitive decline. The human brain doesn’t operate in isolation; what we do with our body impacts on our mental capacity.

Being sedentary is a risk to your health. Find something active you enjoy and get up and do it.

This article is in the latest Rowing & Regatta magazine. The magazine is free to all British Rowing members – find out more here.