What does mental exercise improve in the brain?

The aim of this article is to explore the positive changes that mental training can bring about in the brain, based on scientific evidence, and how these improvements can benefit athletes.

Picture of Av: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Tränare.
By: Tommy Davidovic | Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer.
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Mental training has become an increasingly popular concept in both science and everyday life, and its importance is particularly prominent in the world of sport. Mental training encompasses a range of exercises and techniques aimed at improving our mental functions, such as attention, memory and emotional regulation. For athletes, these mental skills can be crucial to achieving peak performance. 

1. Structural changes in the brain

Increased density of gray matter in the brain

One of the most notable effects of mental exercise is an increased density of gray matter in the brain. Gray matter is made up of the cell bodies of neurons and is essential for many of our cognitive functions. Research has shown that regular mental exercise can increase gray matter density in regions such as the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory, as well as the prefrontal cortex, which plays a central role in emotional regulation and decision-making. For athletes, this can mean faster learning of new techniques and better ability to handle stress and pressure in competitive situations.

Improved connectivity

Mental training also improves connectivity between different brain regions. This improved connectivity is particularly evident in networks responsible for attention, self-regulation and emotional processing. Strengthening the connections between these areas allows the brain to work more efficiently and harmoniously, leading to better cognitive and emotional functioning. For athletes, this can mean improved ability to stay focused for longer periods of time and to switch more quickly between different mental states depending on the demands of competition.

Improved neuroplasticity

Mental training promotes neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. This is important for adaptation and learning throughout life. For athletes, this means that their brains can adapt more quickly to new training methods, tactics and situations, giving them a significant advantage in their sporting careers. Through increased neuroplasticity, athletes can also better recover from injuries by the brain developing new pathways to compensate for damaged areas.

2. functional changes in the brain

Improved attention and focus

Mental training has been shown to improve attention and focus by increasing activity in key brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate. These areas are critical to our ability to concentrate and stay focused on tasks for longer periods of time. For athletes, this improved focus ability can result in better performance, especially in sports that require high concentration and fast reaction time.

Emotional regulation

Another significant functional change is improved ability to regulate emotions. Mental training can alter activity in brain regions such as the amygdala, which is linked to emotional responses, and increase activation in the prefrontal cortex, which helps control these responses. For athletes, this is particularly important, as the ability to recover quickly from negative emotions such as frustration or nervousness can be crucial to performing at peak levels.

Reduced stress and anxiety

Mental exercise can also reduce levels of stress and anxiety. This occurs through decreased activity in the amygdala and increased activity in the prefrontal cortex, resulting in a more balanced emotional state. For athletes, who are often exposed to high levels of stress and pressure, mental training can be an invaluable tool to stay calm and perform optimally during competitions.

3. cognitive improvements

Memory and learning

Mental training has a positive effect on memory and learning. By increasing the volume of the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory formation and retention, mental training can improve our ability to store and recall information. For athletes, this means faster learning of strategies and techniques, which can provide a competitive advantage in competitive situations.

Improved problem solving and creativity

Mental training can also improve problem solving and creativity. By promoting divergent thinking, a key component of creativity, mental training helps us generate multiple solutions to problems. For athletes, this can mean becoming better at adapting to unexpected situations and coming up with creative strategies to overcome opponents.

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4. Neurochemical changes

Increased levels of neurotransmitters

Another important effect of mental exercise is increased levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are crucial for mood regulation, motivation and general well-being. For athletes, this can lead to increased motivation and endurance, which is critical for long-term training and competition.

5. improved physical brain health

Reduced age-related decay

Mental exercise can slow down age-related brain atrophy, which is the loss of brain tissue that occurs naturally with age. Studies have shown that people who regularly engage in mental exercise have better preserved cognitive functions and less age-related brain atrophy. For older athletes, this may mean that they can maintain their cognitive acuity and continue to perform at a high level despite advancing age.

Improved neurogenesis

Mental exercise also promotes neurogenesis, which is the formation of new neurons in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus. Neurogenesis is important for learning and memory, and by promoting this process, mental exercise can help improve our cognitive abilities and overall brain health. For athletes, this means that their brains can continue to adapt and improve throughout their careers.

Summary

In summary, mental exercise can lead to significant improvements in brain structure and function. Increased gray matter density, improved connectivity, better attention and emotional regulation, reduced stress and anxiety, improvement in memory and creativity, increased levels of key neurotransmitters, as well as improved physical brain health are some of the most prominent benefits. For athletes, these improvements can translate into better performance, increased resilience to stress and faster learning of new skills.

It is clear that mental exercise has many benefits for brain health and sports performance. Including mental training in your daily routines can be an effective strategy to improve your overall well-being and sports performance. To get started quickly with a simple routine that makes a big difference, I recommend my logbook that you can download here.

I encourage you as an athlete to explore different mental training methods, such as mindfulness, meditation or cognitive exercises, and consider seeking professional guidance to tailor these methods to your individual needs. If you are curious to read more about our different mental training programs and approaches, you can do this.

What steps will you take today to start improving your brain health and sports performance through mental training?

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About the author

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Tommy Davidovic

Cert. Coach (CPCC, PCC, CTPC) & Mental Trainer who helps athletes get guaranteed change and results fast. Creator of the Flow Mindset method that has helped athletes around the world break their old records and made competition fun again.

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