50 Shades of Grey Matter: Exercise and The Brain

As I near 40 I am becoming more interested in the science behind aging, or rather delaying the negative effects of aging as long as I can.  I don’t mind getting older, as long I can still look good and feel great.  Part of that interest…which translates as research to me is around “brain plasticity” or how the brain can continue to learn and grow even as we are.  And of course in full “Fit Muslimah” style I am interested in how exercise can help.  What I have been reading is fascinating.

We’ve all heard how exercise is great for our bodies and our metabolism by burning more energy and breaking down excess fat, especially when it’s paired with the right diet plan for us. We build ourselves a great combination of cross training exercises ranging from cardio, strength training, and flexibility protocols. We create this exercise routine because we know that it helps our heart, muscles, and other systems when we work out, but did you know that it also helps with improving our brain?

12241613_10153021579102924_4004184979079178349_nRecent research into exercise and its effects on the brain have shown some great advancements in our understanding of the brain and its ability to grow based on workouts of just 20 or 30 minutes a day. It’s quite remarkable really the way our brains use exercise to improve its overall function. So, how does the brain do this? Why is it important to exercise to improve our brain function? These are questions we’ll be answered as we go.

What is gray matter? Why is it important?

There are two parts to the brain in terms of its matter: gray matter and white matter. Gray matter holds all of our neurons and the cells to support our neurons health and growth while white matter contains the axons (ends) of our neurons, which are the passageways for our brain signals to get from one nerve cell to the next via the axons. Gray matter and white matter make up the circuitry within our brains, communicating to the body when we need to breathe, eat, move, and sleep plus everything else in-between our brain’s many functions.

Both of these matters can see definite improvement through moderate exercise completed on a regular basis. Though, the focus will mostly be based on the effects exercise has on gray matter. What research has shown is that you don’t even have to working out long before you can find significant growth within the gray matter, especially in both sensory and motor functioning.

How does exercise help the brain?

With each of the following three effects exercise has on the brain, physical activity has proven to help preserve and increase our gray matter.

  1. Improves blood flow.

Much like the blood flow from our hearts to the rest of the body, exercise works well in improving the blood flow going into the brain. As we pair our exercise activity with a healthy diet, we’ll find that we’re de-clogging any blockages within our blood stream that can lead to potential heart attacks or aneurysms within the brain. As you’re in the middle of your workout, you can probably feel the blood rushing through your brain, or at least you feel like you can. This is a good sign that you’re feeding your brain the nutrients from your blood to energize and focus the neurons need to send the right signals and even increase the signals they’re sending throughout the brain and the body.

  1. Creates new brain cells.

Not only does exercise help strengthen existing neurons, it has also helped in creating new ones. This amazing ability to build new neurons for more possible connections and more firing of signals has shown some rather incredible results when researchers have gone on to study the brain through MRIs and other imagining systems. The increase isn’t just slight in most cases. The most remarkable is that the increase in new neurons being built in the brain is that they are mainly seen in the areas that control motor and sensory functions. These improvements have also been seen in some of our other cognitive functions. The more neurons we have, the more our brain can handle and retain through our movements and our senses.

  1. Creates new connections between those new cells and blood vessels.

Not only is our brain developing new supporting cells and neurons within the gray matter, it’s also using the improved blood flow to create new connections between our blood vessels and the new neurons. Our neurons improve through these new connections because of the blood carrying oxygen and other nutrients we need for our brains to send out, receive, and interpret signals in the correct way. When we live a sedentary lifestyle, we can see a loss of brain function as far as memory, movement, and our senses. With these new connections through exercise, we’re actually giving our brains exactly what they need: a healthier platform for longevity and proper functioning as we age.

We know the how, but why are these improvements so important?

As we build up our exercise routines to a regular one, we can see marked improvement within our brains that leads to greater functioning in three key areas.

  1. Improves cognitive functions.

Impairment of cognitive functions can come from a number of factors, such as lack of proper sleep, stress, anxiety, and even poor eating habits. Each of these can take a toll on how our brains work from our sensory functions, memory, and even our motor skills. The more stress we put our brains under, the more likely the brain will eventually do what needs to be done and shuts down. These tolls can be highly detrimental for our brains later in life as we keep them under constant stress, lack of sleep, and unhealthy foods. There is evidence that these poor habits have led to further denigration of certain mental diseases. However, when we exercise (even on a moderate level), we can start to see improvements for these essential functions within our brains by rebuilding, strengthening, and preserving our neurons so these tiny cells can do the jobs they’re meant to do. Exercise, on its own, can help with giving our brains a boost because we can sleep better and reduce stress through our workouts.

  1. Improves memory.

There are some studies that are also showing some significant improvement within our Sal-cerebro-lee-gifmemories and our retention of memories as we work out through cardio and strength training types of exercises. Just 30 minutes of exercise has shown to increase the brain’s ability to recall memories when tested. This was marked improvement compared to those who don’t exercise and were asked to remember the same objects to remember. This improvement within our memory most likely stems to the higher amounts of blood flowing through the brain, feeding the neurons so they can complete their necessary functions. Blood flow into the hippocampus and the neurons within this area of the brain have helped to improve memory in patients suffering from mental denigration.

  1. Improves symptoms for conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Speaking of mental denigration, exercise has helped show relief in the symptoms related to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As researchers work tirelessly to learn as much as they can for these two diseases, they have found that those in the early stages or those that may eventually have one of these two can find the slowing of their symptoms through regular exercise with moderate levels of physical activity. While exercise isn’t a cure-all for these diseases, the increased blood flow that improves cognitive functions and memory within the brain has also shown greater promise in keeping these two diseases from making matters worse. Both diseases work on damaging the connections between neurons and eventually killing them off, but exercise has seemed to slow down these destructive measures by preserving the neurons within the grey matter and improving the connections between the neurons and their blood vessels.


While brain function is still a fairly big mystery to us, we are learning more and more each day about how the brain works, how to keep our brains healthy, and how we can even improve them so we can slow the development of diseases, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest changes we seen in brain function and its fight against these diseases has been through the addition of exercise to our daily lives. Whether we choose to partake in mostly cardio or a routine made of a cross of different exercise types, we can see a marked improvement in our brain’s overall functions. Even as we only complete 20 or 30 minutes of exercise on a regular basis, we can see new neurons developing as the older ones are strengthening to keep up with their everyday functions, especially within our sensory and motor functions.

There has also been studies completed to show that our memories can be improved through exercise as we preserve our gray matter and the connections it needs to carry out its essential functions. Even as we build our gray matter to greater strengths, we can see other changes being made within our brains and their functions because we’re now sleeping better, feeling less stress and anxiousness, and hopefully, even choosing better foods to feed our neurons the right nutrients to keep them stronger and lasting longer. As our researchers continue to learn more, we’re sure to learn more about how our brains are improved through exercise and other means to keep us livin

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