Aerobic exercise has been proven to improve cardiovascular health and diminish the risk of heart disease and stroke. In the last decade, the role of aerobic exercise within cognitive and affective domains has become more prominent. Exercise has been shown to reduce mood disturbance, improve psychological well-being, and improve positive valence associated with anhedonia, lack of motivation and energy (Tozzi, Carballedo, Lavelle, Doolin, Doyle, Amico, & Frodl, 2016; Toups, Greer, Rethorst, Grannerman, & Trivedi, 2017).
Changes and improvements in cognitive ability and mood state are often accompanied by changes in the neural circuitry of key structures within the brain. Research on aerobic exercise and the brain has identified the hippocampus, the amygdala, prefrontal cortex and the ventral tegmental area (VTA) as key areas that are effected by aerobic exercise. Interestingly, each of these areas are also involved in emotional processing and affect. As such, the aim of this analysis is to demonstrate the relationship between aerobic exercise and affect from a structural and behavioral point of view for each of these brain areas and to discuss how exercise can remediate some of the impairments to various brain areas.
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- Function: Integral in processes associated with long term memory and episodic memory
- Impairments of this area cause: Deficits in memory, specifically an inability to form new memories (anterograde amnesia), Diminished affect
1. Exercise helps by: Following a 16-week exercise intervention, participants demonstrated decreased mood disturbance and greater emotional well-being. These changes were correlated with structural and connectivity changes in the parahippocampal gyrus and the
- Function: Emotional fear response and conditioning, Consolidation of hippocampal dependent memories
- Impairments of this area cause: Inability to attend to emotional stimuli, decreased speed of processing emotions
- Exercise helps by: Rodent research done by Lin et al (2015) demonstrated that daily wheel running effectively prevents hippocampal and amygdalar memory deficits and strengthens neural circuitry for these brain areas.
The Pre Frontal Cortex
- Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex: Responsible for memory, planning, set shifting, persistence, judgement, problem solving.
- Orbitofrontal Prefrontal Cortex: inhibition, focus, emotional regulation
- Medial Prefrontal Cortex: initiative, some lower body movements, emotion
- Impairments of this area cause: Decline in executive functions (i.e. problem solving, judgement, initiative) and difficulty regulating emotions
- Exercise helps by: Research done by Basso et al. (2015) found that a single bout of high intensity exercise (50 minutes on a stationary bike) improved higher order cognitive processes in the PFC such as strategizing and planning.
The Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA)
- Function: Associated with dopaminergic pathways- reward and motivation circuitries, mood regulation
- Impairments of this area cause: Lesser activation of the VTA and Nucleus Accumbens (NAc) is associated with depression and decreased motivation (i.e. anhedonia).
- Exercise helps by: Research done by Greenwood et al. (2011) found that long term exercise increased tyrosine hydroxylase (a precursor to dopamine) in the VTA, and helped increase activation of the VTA and regulate release of accumbens dopamine.
We know that exercise has incredible potential for improving brain function and health. The present list is meant to highlight some of the key brain areas and how they benefit from exercise. The nervous system is a complex and vast system. As such, there is still much to research, analyze and learn about the relationship between exercise and the brain. In this way, this list is not exhaustive.
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