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Just a brief bout of moderate intensity aerobic exercise can do wonders not only for the body, for the mind as well. Research carried out at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, suggests a half-work workout is enough to promote neuroplasticity or the brain’s ability to reshape itself. In other words, your mind will be fresher, more creative, and ready to learn new things.

Mens sana in corpore sano

The team led by neuroscientist Ronan Mooney recruited ten young adults and asked them to cycle on a stationary treadmill. Some participants worked out moderately, at about 60 percent of their peak performance, while another group stayed idle and acted as the control.

This brief, but intense period of aerobic exercise reduced the levels of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is involved in regulating the brain’s capacity to undergo neuroplasticity and when it bind to its receptor sites, the production of a new impulse is prevented and, therefore, has an inhibitory effect.  Because of its inhibitory characteristic, GABA has become a popular medicinal supplement for people that suffer from excessive anxiety. In other situations, reduced GABA levels is a good thing.

“Habitual exercise appears to be beneficial for health and well-being. It is becoming increasingly evident that acute and chronic participation in aerobic exercise exerts a number of positive effects on the brain such as improved memory and executive function. The underlying mechanisms of exercise-related changes in brain function are not completely understood,” said Winston D. Byblow and Ronan A. Mooney of the University of Auckland.

The New Zealand researchers hypothesize that this GABA dynamics followings workouts may “enhance early acquisition and consolidation of skills, leading to improved motor memory and performance.”

Only ten people, all young, were included in this study which was published in Experimental Brain Research. This limits the scope of the findings but future work might examine the effects of exercise on neuroplasticity with a far bigger sample size and varied demographics. Even so, there’s reason to believe stroke victims could benefit immensely from coordinated physical exercise.

Previously, scientists found exercise increases the volume of the hippocampus (the seat of the brain for emotion, memory, and the autonomic nervous system), thus improving memory. Another older study published in 2006 which included only sedentary adults found a six-months aerobic crash course led to an increase of both white and gray matter in the brain. Additionally, exercising keeps depression and dementia at bay.