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Exercise, Sleep, and Brain Function

Exercise, Sleep and Brain Function

There is no doubt that when you exercise you get a rush and an instant release of endorphins. Endorphins reduce your pain perception, triggering a positive feeling and making you feel happy. You’ve probably heard of the term “runner’s high,” a name given due to the antidepressant-like-effects that occur from exercising, which corresponds with a drop in your cortisol levels. A study from Stockholm explained how the “runner’s high” effect is associated with cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory (Bjornebekk et al., 2005).

But how does this all affect the brain? Exercise affects the brain in many ways. It pumps more oxygen around the body and to the brain by increasing your heart rate. It can also promote brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells.

A study conducted in 2019 by Gunnell et al, resulted in a favorable relationship between physical activity and cognitive function. Later in 2019, Eather et al. looked into the effects of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) exercises in university students. They found a 95% increase in cardiorespiratory fitness levels and muscular fitness levels. The study concluded that the students all had an increase satisfaction rate, enjoyment rate, and there was an increase in the value of exercise based on their concentration levels and grades that resulted positively as a side effect. By exercise, there is also an impact on the gray matter in your brain. A study conducted at UCLA showed how exercise increased the amount of growth factor in the brain, making it easier for the new neuronal connections to be made (Ding et al, 2006).

Tilp et al (2019) looked at 11- to 14-year-olds and investigated the effects of a motor and coordination-oriented exercise intervention on academic achievements, attention/concentration ability, and on different facets of creative potential. The study showed that the children’s basic reading skills and arithmetic increased in speed and efficiency. Attention and concentration were measured with being able to identify and respond quickly and systematically.

As well as exercise playing a part in brain function, it’s important to remember the role of sleep. Sleep allows the restoration and preservation of brain function, whereas sleep loss causes fatigue and can have impairing effects on neurobehavioral functions. It is recommended that we sleep 7 hours per night to maintain optimal health (Dolezal et al, 2017). A study in 2017 compared this correlation and evaluated the changes in brain network topology after sleep deprivation. Staying awake for a 36-hour time period after one night of 9-hour baseline sleep showed significant reductions in the network metrics of the brain. Following that, the participants were able to have two recovery nights of rest that restored the global properties but not the local properties of brain network organization (Jiang et al).

In comparing sleep and exercise, we agree that both are pivotal in maintaining health; if lacking, these behaviors result in higher levels of burnout (exhaustion) and depression. Medical students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine were participants in a study to compare these two effects. They calculated that there was a 3.5% increase in burnout and a 2% increase in students who screened positive for depression, from the beginning of the school year compared to the middle. Inadequate sleep also correlated with significantly lower professional efficacy and higher exhaustion scores (Wolf, 2016).

Imagine if you were offered a magic pill that improved your learning capabilities, reduced your anxiety and stress, and improved your mood and motivation. Generally, it makes you a better version of yourself for the rest of your day. All you would have to do is give up 30 minutes of your day. Would you take it? If yes, that’s the reason you should exercise. Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function … exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems. – John Ratey

This article first appeared in the March 2020 issue of Lifelines, the Life West student magazine.


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