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Metacognition and Exercise

There are numerous studies linking metacognition (cognitive abilities) to the importance of sustained physical exercise in critical stages of neurodevelopment, such as childhood and adolescence. In addition to promoting physical and motor growth, physical exercise also significantly interacts with cognitive and learning abilities.

This occurs through various physiological and metabolic mechanisms:

1. Angiogenesis (formation of new blood vessels and capillaries):

Angiogenesis is the process of forming new blood vessels from preexisting ones. It’s a physiological process that occurs during embryonic development, wound healing, and tumor growth. It is also believed to play a role in muscle adaptation to exercise and muscle injury recovery. Recent studies have shown that increased angiogenesis in muscle tissue is associated with greater endurance and improved exercise recovery. This is thought to occur by delivering more oxygen and nutrients to muscle cells, enabling them to better adapt to the demands of exercise. Furthermore, angiogenesis may also play a role in muscle injuries by aiding in tissue repair and promoting healing. Angiogenesis has been shown to play a role in cognitive function and the development of certain neurological conditions. Studies have suggested that increased blood vessel growth in the brain, or angiogenesis, is associated with improved cognitive function and memory. In aging and Alzheimer’s disease, angiogenesis is impaired, leading to reduced blood flow to the brain and decreased cognitive function. Conversely, some studies have shown that increasing brain angiogenesis through exercise, diet, or medication can enhance cognitive function and reduce the risk of neurological disorders.

2. Efficient glucose distribution:

The brain heavily relies on glucose as its primary source of energy. Neurons, especially those in the left prefrontal cortex, require a constant supply of glucose to maintain their functions. Glucose is converted into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the cellular energy molecule, through glycolysis and cellular respiration. Executive functions such as planning, decision-making, and working memory are supported by neural networks in the left prefrontal cortex. This frontal region is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in blood glucose levels due to its high energy demand. When glucose levels drop below a certain threshold during hypoglycemia, neurons may experience difficulties in synaptic communication and neurotransmitter synthesis, negatively affecting executive functions. Attention, memory, and decision-making are impaired, and individuals may experience confusion and emotional changes.

3. Cerebral blood flow.

4. Neurotransmitter function:

When blood glucose levels decrease, the synthesis of key neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate is disrupted. These neurotransmitters are essential for the functioning of the left prefrontal cortex and executive functions.

Serotonin: Hypoglycemia can lower serotonin levels, commonly associated with mood disturbances and emotional regulation. This can manifest as irritability, anxiety, or even depression, negatively impacting decision-making and emotional control.
Dopamine: Dopamine plays a crucial role in motivation, attention, and working memory. Low glucose levels can reduce dopamine release, affecting the ability to sustain attention and focus on cognitive tasks.
Glutamate: Glutamate is the primary excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain and is involved in synaptic plasticity and memory. Hypoglycemia can affect glutamate function, hindering efficient communication between neurons and thus logical reasoning and problem-solving abilities.

5. Structural brain changes due to physical exercise:

One key mechanism through which exercise improves brain function is by promoting the generation of new brain cells, a process known as neurogenesis. Exercise has been shown to increase the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory. Physical activity can also increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays a crucial role in the growth and survival of brain cells. BDNF helps support the growth and survival of existing neurons as well as the growth and development of new neurons and synapses. In addition to promoting neurogenesis and BDNF production, regular exercise has also been demonstrated to improve cognitive function, including attention, decision-making, and planning. Regular exercise can also have a positive impact on mental health, including reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety (Diamond, 2015).

Based on this scientific evidence, interventions aimed at enhancing executive functions should incorporate physical exercise along with teaching emotional management strategies and social skills.

In a systematic review with a meta-analysis on this topic, Álvarez and colleagues (2017) found that programs promoting physical exercise in childhood and adolescence tend to produce improvements in:

–  A – Executive functions

– B – Working memory:

Working memory is a cognitive ability that allows the brain to store and manipulate information for a short period to perform various cognitive tasks such as reasoning, comprehension, and learning. It can be compared to a blank notepad where you jot down your checking account balance to provide it to your stockbroker. The concept of working memory was introduced by Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch in 1974. Both authors propose that working memory consists of several components, including a phonological loop (for verbal information), a visual-spatial loop (for visual and spatial information), and a central executive loop (which controls attention and coordinates the activities of the other components).

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is a brain region that regulates attention, decision-making, and error detection. The anterior cingulate cortex is closely related to working memory and is thought to play a role in controlling and coordinating working memory processes. One of the primary ways the ACC is believed to be involved in working memory is through its role in attention control. The ACC has been shown to be active when people are required to focus their attention on specific information in working memory and inhibit irrelevant information. This is important for keeping the content of working memory active and being able to use it in a cognitive task. The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) also serves for error detection. It has been demonstrated that the ACC is active when people make mistakes or encounter unexpected events, thus controlling working memory errors.

– C – Response inhibition:

Response inhibition is the ability to control and regulate actions and responses to strong and specific stimuli. Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often have difficulties with sustained attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Recent studies have shown that individuals with ADHD have difficulties in inhibiting their responses, primarily due to issues in the prefrontal cortex, especially in situations requiring sustained attention and impulse control. Attention deficit and response inhibition are related due to the low capacity of children with ADHD to inhibit responses.

Moreover, the same authors conclude that increasing the number of hours per week tends to produce these overall improvements, regardless of the specific type or intensity of exercise. However, not all exercises influence cognitive abilities equally.

The most effective physical exercises are those that require complex, adaptive, or controlled movements (e.g., martial arts). Sports that emphasize decision-making or tactical cooperation (such as team sports), especially when based on progressively complex tasks matching the stage of neurodevelopment in the child, are also more useful.

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