Exactly how does exercise affect the brain?
In his book ‘Spark’, Psychiatrist John Ratey, MD, explains how children’s brains benefit from exercise.
Firstly, exercise sparks the production in the brain of the most remarkable protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This protein has been dubbed ‘fertiliser for the brain’, or ‘miracle-gro’ because it makes it possible for the brain to produce new cells and take in new information. It literally causes the brain to grow more connections. It also helps the brain increase the uptake of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. These are important for forming and keeping long-term memories and for the growth and development of brain tissue.
Exercise also helps to enhance cognitive flexibility, which allows us to shift our thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers. It has a positive effect on the brain’s hippocampus, which is involved in memory making and is important for learning. Importantly, the more complex the movements during exercise, the more complex the brain connections. This means that activities that challenge brain and body simultaneously (for example, ballet, skateboarding, martial arts), have a greater positive impact. The technical movements in these sports activate an area of the brain that controls balance, timing, sequencing, evaluating consequences, switching, error corrections, fine motor adjustments, intense focus and concentration.
Studies have proved that there is a big overlap between attention, consciousness and movement. The attention circuits are regulated by neurotransmitters, which are generated and balanced by BDNF, which is sparked by exercise. Movement and attention share overlapping neural pathways and that is why activities that activate the brain and body work well for children who struggle to concentrate and focus. They have to pay attention while learning new movements, which activates and coaches both systems simultaneously.
There is definitely huge benefit in children learning to control their bodies through activities involving highly organised movements. Random, aimless running around might help blood circulation and send oxygen to the brain but the most benefit for learning involves coordinated movement.