The human brain adapts to changing demands by altering its functional and structural properties ("neuroplasticity") which results in learning and acquiring skills. Convergent evidence from both human and animal studies suggests that physical activity facilitates neuroplasticity of certain brain structures and as a result cognitive functions. Animal studies have identified an enhancement of neurogenesis, synaptogenesis, angiogenesis and the release of neurotrophins as neural mechanisms mediating beneficial cognitive effects of physical exercise. This review summarizes behavioral consequences and neural correlates at the system level following physical exercise interventions in humans of different ages. The results suggest that physical exercise may trigger processes facilitating neuroplasticity and, thereby, enhances an individual's capacity to respond to new demands with behavioral adaptations. Indeed, some recent studies have suggested that combining physical and cognitive training might result in a mutual enhancement of both interventions. Moreover, new data suggest that to maintain the neuro-cognitive benefits induced by physical exercise, an increase in the cardiovascular fitness level must be maintained.
Keywords: Cognition; Cognitive training; Executive functions; Humans; Memory; Neuroplasticity; Physical activity; Physical exercise.
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