While the link between Sport and Health is today firmly set in our minds – and quite rightly so – we are less inclined to believe that sport can improve the performance of the brain. Can sport act as a miracle pill? How is this possible? A neuroscientific perspective sheds some light.
Strengthening your mind through your legs?
Scientists however are unanimous. Physical activity is beneficial for mental health through neurophysiological mechanisms mainly linked to cerebral plasticity. Our nervous systems have this incredible ability to produce new connections by forming new synapses and neurones.
In particular, sport helps to create new neurones (neurogenesis) in certain regions of our brains, such as the hippocampus, and in different areas of the cortex, centres for more complex cognitive functions. Physical exercise also allows a more efficient irrigation of our nervous systems due to the production of new blood cells. These effects are caused by a natural increase in the concentration of growth hormones and neurotransmitters.
Being active creates new neurones and thinking preserves them!
There are certain conditions however under which this creation of new neurones is effective. This nuance provides us with valuable ways to maintain them.
Most of the neurones generated through exercise are only destroyed after one or two weeks if they are not assimilated into our existing neural network. The best way to preserve them would be by taking part in intellectually demanding activities. These new demands push us away from our routines and automatic reflexes. New connections therefore appear which support the development of processes to remodel ‘our neural networks’. Combining physical and intellectual activities to get the best results therefore seems to be a winning strategy. This favours cognitive development. These demanding activities are characterised by three key notions: novelty, variety and complexity.
To illustrate this point, changing your habits even within the same activity, experimenting, varying the situations, environments and training, and taking part in competitive activities are many examples of practices which benefit mental performance!
- Sport plays a key role in physical and mental health
- Physical activity stimulates the creation of new neurones
- A demanding activity in a cognitive sense helps to maintain new cerebral connections
- Changing your habits, varying situations and dedicating yourself to competitive activities benefits mental performance