The human brain is the most dazzlingly complex entity in the entire known universe: 80 billion brain cells, with additional neural cells throughout the body. Each neuron connects across synaptic gaps to thousands of other neurons, resulting in trillions of connections responsible for all of the brain’s internal communications and processing and all of our external behaviors and creations.
Neuroscientists are beginning to map those connections, drawing the brain’s neural “connectome,” much as molecular biologists have mapped the human genome. There are as many neuronal connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Contemplating the brain boggles the mind.
Protecting and nurturing the functioning of your brain is important for your long-term health and well-being. You can make lifestyle choices that protect, exercise, and strengthen the physical brain, which in turn supports the complexity of all of your emotional, relational, and cognitive functioning.
1. Move It
Research in the last 10 years has made it abundantly clear—we need to move our bodies not just for the health of our heart, lungs, muscles, and joints, but also for the health of our brain. One of the best things you can do for your physical brain is to break a sweat with aerobic exercise. Vigorous exercise makes your brain release brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF).
This is the hormonal growth factor that causes your brain to grow new neurons, particularly in the hippocampus, the structure of the brain that consolidates learning from new experiences into long-term memory. BDNF also stimulates those new neurons to increase the length, density, and complexity of their dendrites (the extensions of the neurons that receive input from other neurons), creating “thicker,” more complex networks in the brain.