Attention Improves During Physical Exercise

My brother and I were born in the ’80s and more than half a decade later, my sister arrived. What we have most in common during our childhood was my mom who was always telling us to go play outside. There we would run, jump, climb trees, ride our bicycles and even play cricket in the street.

And this is exactly what I want for my children – not only to have all these childhood memories but also to be more active and to enjoy being less indoors.

Luckily my husband is also very fond of cycling and running. I guess this is where my son picked up his love for running and trust me when I say that Liam takes every opportunity he gets to race against friends. He can, at times, be very competitive.

But let us investigate what happens physiologically in our brains when we are busy with physical activities such as exercise.

Being engaged in physical activity; whether it is dancing, running or cycling, increases blood flow, and therefore the amount of oxygen that goes to the brain also increases. This then boosts neural connectivity and stimulates nerve cell growth in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a brain structure that is embedded in the medial temporal lope of each cerebral cortex. It is also the centre of learning and verbal memory. The hippocampus also regulates motivation and emotion.

This means that exercise in fact then physically changes this structure of the brain. I think the major benefits from a bigger hippocampus would be improved attention and memory, increased brain activity, increased cognitive function, enhanced mood and being able to cope with stress.

What do further studies tell us about exercise and attention?

“Students who are physically active perform better on tests and have increased focus in the classroom.”

“Physical exercise creates an environment in which the brain is ready, able, and motivated to learn.”

“Physical activity improves cognitive performance and brain health. Vigorous- and moderate-intensity physical activity shows to have more benefit.”

“Evidence suggests that mathematics and reading are the two academic subjects that are the most influenced by physical activity.”

“Frequent physical activity breaks that are developmentally appropriate should be provided to improve time on task when learning.”

All of this is very interesting. We need however to dig a bit deeper and look at the chemical impact of exercise on the brain.

Have you ever heard of neurotransmitters? Neurotransmitters are chemicals that originate from within our brain system. They act as messenger molecules molecule in the brain that allows certain nerve cells to communicate with one another.  They are essential in our complex neural system.

Here is a list of the neurotransmitters that are released during exercises and what they do.

Serotonin Helps regulate mood, social behaviour, appetite and digestion, sleep, and memory.
Dopamine Responsible for movement, pleasure, attention, mood, and motivation.
Endorphins Reduces the perception of pain and triggers a positive feeling in the body.
Norepinephrine Important for attentiveness, emotions, sleeping, dreaming, and learning.

During exercise, the brain is releasing all these feel-good chemicals while also getting rid of chemicals that make you stressed and anxious, we also get rid of restless energy and we are able to better block out distractions.  This all in itself can aid in paying better attention. We will also in the long run eat and sleep better. I think it is also important to know that ADHD medication also increases the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.

The best type of exercise to do to pay better attention seems to be any aerobic exercise such as cycling, running, swimming or walking briskly. The effects of this also seem to last several hours after being physically active.

With all of this information, I think it is time for me to go run after my two little ones. It might just be helpful!

Natasha Pieterse

Biolink Attention Training Krugersdorp