Exercise is doing more for your brain than just providing additional oxygen. When you exercise, you are not only building muscle but also building the brain.

The brain may be getting some long-lasting benefits from exercise including boosts for our memory and overall brain function. Exercise was associated with a reduction in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-related behaviors. Researchers not only discovered a role exercise may play for ADHD but a gene was also isolated which regulates the benefits of exercise on the brain.

The research team from Dartmouth College was led by David Bucci, PhD, from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The research was started by a casual observation at several summer camps around Vermont by colleagues of Dr. Bucci who noticed that among children with ADHD, athletes and campers engaged in team sports responded more favorably to behavioral interventions than children with ADHD but who were not as active.

From these observations, researchers developed the study to determine what role exercise played in brain function. The researchers conducted experiments on lab rats and discovered that exercise helped rats who had behavior similar to ADHD reduce those ADHD-related behaviors.

Female rats responded better to exercise than male rates, note the researchers. To further expand on the possible role of exercise on the brain, researchers studied the brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that is a part of brain development.  

Higher BDNF expression was associated with improved memory for exercising rats. Exercising adolescent rats had longer lasting BDNF expression compared to adult exercising rats that exercised the same length of time as adolescent rats.

In an additional study that focused on humans, researchers discovered that BDNF could be used to predict the benefits of exercise on the brain. Researchers recruited Dartmouth students and locals from Hanover. According to the researchers, BDNF, based on the person’s genetic makeup of BDNF, could be used to determine if exercise would help improve learning and memory.

Researchers believe that exercising early, especially while the brain develops during childhood and adolescence, may help change the brain as it undergoes normal development. Continued research on exercise’s effect on the brain could establish exercising as a potential treatment supplement for ADHD and further establish the role of exercise for healthy living.

The study was published in the May edition of Neuroscience.