Exercise is the single most powerful tool we have to maximize our brain function. This is because of the extensive cascade of chemical compounds, including hormones, neurotransmitters and growth factors, that are unleashed in and into the brain when we get in a good workout. A bit of history to explain how we know this is in order.

In the late twentieth century, scientists discovered a naturally-occurring compound in the brain and named it Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF. They found that when brain cells resting comfortably in a petri dish were sprinkled with BDNF, they started growing -- sprouting dendrites like mad -- similar to what they do as part of our brain's mass when we are learning something new.

Since then there have been thousands of research papers written about BDNF. In these myriad studies researchers have found that when this compound is activated, it acts to protect brain cells from deterioration, strengthens neural connections and even stimulates the birth of new brain cells.

Close on the heels of this ground-breaking research, Carl Cotman at the University of California, Irvine's Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia was studying why some older folks stay mentally sharp all their days while others suffer severe cognitive decline. He found that those who keep their mental faculties fully functioning as they age had three characteristics in common: education, self efficacy and exercise.

Wondering why physical exercise would improve and maintain one's mental clarity, he devised an experiment to see if exercise would increase the release of BDNF in the brain. Since few individuals wish to donate their brains to research while they are still using them, he enlisted the help of some very enthusiastic mice. Specifically, Cotman put a running wheel in the cages of some of the rodent "volunteers." The mice were divided into groups that had access to a running wheel two days, four days, or seven days a week, or not at all. He found that the mice loved to run in the wheel to the tune of several kilometers (two or three miles) per night.

When Cotman later dissected the brains of the now-less-than-enthusiastic mice, he found that the exercise had significantly increased the amount of BDNF in the brain. Not only that, but the more the furry little volunteers had run (e.g., four days vs. two days), the more of this brain-cell-growing substance had been produced AND it was found in large amounts in the hippocampus -- the region of the brain largely responsible for learning and memory!

BDNF, however, is merely one of the compounds that flood the brain when we work up a sweat. With each workout, IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) is released from storage in the liver and other parts of the body to help with metabolizing glucose to produce energy and then travels by blood stream through the blood-brain barrier into the brain where it changes roles to support learning. Also released with exercise and subsequently entering the brain is FGF-2 (fibroblast growth factor). Once in the brain, FGF-2 is instrumental in turning the hippocampus' stem cells into mature brain cells, a process called neurogenesis (i.e., the creation of new brain cells).

But that's not all by a long shot. Exercise signals the release of a multitude of chemical compounds that improve our mood, dull pain, keep us motivated and attentive and generally help our cognition. Here are a few of those compounds:

•Anandamide and Endocannabinoids -- These compounds attach to the same receptor sites that marijuana's THC uses, improving mood and pleasure.
•Dopamine -- One of the brain's neurotransmitters, it has to do with maintaining attention, staying motivated and feelings of pleasure.
•Serotonin -- This neurotransmitter helps quell anxiety and impulsivity.
•ANP (atrial natriuretic peptide) -- ANP is a substance produced in the heart when the heart beats faster; it travels to the brain where it plays a role in calming feelings of stress and anxiety.
•VEGF ((vascular endothelial growth factor) -- This compound helps create new blood vessels (capillaries) to support and supply newly-formed brain cells.

That's just some of the cascade of chemicals that is set into motion when we get ourselves into motion. By the way, those new brain cells that are created in the hippocampus when we exercise, they have just 28 days to get their act together or they get "washed away." In other words, the exercise gets the brain cells ready to learn, but then we have to learn something or do something new and different or we lose the newly-formed neurons. To keep our brain growing, therefore, we need to take dancing lessons, learn a foreign language, solve a puzzle, prepare a new recipe, drive a new route home or _______.

Now you know! The most potent tool for optimal brain function is heart-thumping, muscular-contracting exercise followed by learning something new or doing something that challenges the mind! What are you going to do with this knowledge?

Author's Bio: 

From Ed Mayhew -- the author of Fitter After 50, Fitter For Life and other books, CDs, videos and articles on how you, too, can make falling apart as you age merely an option -- NOT a mandate. Why not make the rest of your life the BEST of your life? http://www.FitterforLife.com and http://www.amazon.com/Age-Blasters-Steps-Younger-You/dp/1598589083/ref=s... (click here for paperback or Kindle editions of AGE BLASTERS)