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The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health

by Sarah on October 17, 2010

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If there is a key ingredient to excellent brain health, exercise is hard to beat.  My mother taught me this indirectly in last year as she faced a life-shaking diagnosis . . .


This was the year where my place in the middle generation – squeezed between aging boomer parents and my children – started to make itself known.


My mother was diagnosed with some kind of cognitive decline.  Eventually Alzheimer’s was ruled out, but clearly something was amiss. 


For over a year we’ve been noting how she calls repeatedly about the same topic, her first call wiped from memory.  Or circles us back around to the same conversation within the space of an hour.


As we talked with different family members, we confirmed that these memory blips were more of a pattern than aberrations.


It was also a year of incredible stress for her – challenges at work and too much travel conspired to wear her out tremendously.


She eats well, takes lots of vitamins.  But the one thing she’d fallen short on was exercise.  It had been a point of contention between us as I nudged and she responded grudgingly.


So this diagnosis came as no surprise to me because I knew how important exercise is for the mind.


  • A study of centenarians in Japan found that both men and women who were experiencing the highest quality of life were also habitual exercisers.  Cognitive functioning was one of the three criteria used for measuring the quality of life.[1]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health


  • Other studies have looked at how exercise helps people recover cognitive function after experiencing stroke, in battling Alzheimers’ or recovering from brain injury. 


  • A recent survey of studies published in Neuropsychobiology concluded that “The overwhelming evidence present in the literature today suggests that exercise ensures successful brain functioning.”[2]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health


And for kids exercise is unmistakably helpful in their brain development:


  • And a study published in Neuroscience observed that pre-adolescent children who spent time running on a treadmill, performed better in academic tests and had more focused attention than kids who didn’t do some activity previously.[3]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health


There are literally hundreds of studies linking exercise to better brain health.


But while scientists have documented that more exercise = better brain functioning, researchers have yet to understand exactly how. 


Some theorize that just the increase of blood circulation helps.


But other scientists have latched onto an idea that is even more intriguing and has some documented proof as well.  And it’s connected to what I’ve written about how exercise can help kids prepare for life. 


You see exercise is like putting your body through stress. 


More stress?  Do we need this? 


Yes, in fact.  But controlled stress.  It’s not the do-or-die stress that gets our adrenaline pumping (unless your exercise is extreme snowboarding or cliff diving).  Rather it’s pushing your body beyond its comfort zone. 


And what happens when we push ourselves out of our comfort zone is this:  We grow new brain cells!  Until just recently scientists thought this was impossible for adults but now we know that several factors go into spurring this kind of new growth.

And one of the most potent is physical stress.  Studies on mice and rats have found that time on the treadmill doubled the rate of new neural growth.[4]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health  And most of this growth occurred in the hippocampus area of the brain, the part responsible for learning and memory.


However, scientists identified a problem as well.  Most of these new neurons die off within a couple weeks.  That is, they die off unless you do one more thing.


Use them.  And not just use these extra neurons in any basic way – but for tough learning projects.  Ones that consume you in concentration.  Where you feel a little strain as you try to put new skills and information together in your brain.[5]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health


My husband swears that picking up snowboarding in his late 30′s is helping his brain do this.  And I consider some of my new soccer skills to fit in this category as well.


So to keep your brain healthy, get moving.


But add something to the mix.  Learn something new.  Try rock climbing or belly dancing or take a family martial arts class.  Something that forces your mind to work.


Your brain will grow and maintain its new growth.  Not only that, when you mix up exercise and make it interesting, you’ll enjoy it more.


As an endnote, my mother’s diagnosis has become a wake up call.  We brought over a treadmill and she’s been weight training as well when she watches the news.  The other day she mentioned she’s looking into purchasing a small kayak so she can join some friends in their regular local lake dips. 


As she’s pared down her work and travel, her symptoms have diminished as well.  It may have just been the buildup of too much “bad” stress in her life which she’s now replacing with some “good” forms of stress.


In any case, exercise is now a central part of her routine.  Her mood is lighter, she certainly seems more alert and on the ball.  And her body is sloughing off some of the extra weight as well. 


And if I could worm my way into her brain, I’m sure I’d see a fresh crop of neurons springing to life.  Brain health – another benefit to exercise.

[1]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health Ozaki A et al. Preservation of quality of life and its relation to lifestyle in centenarians in Japan: a visitation interview survey.  Nippon Koshu Eisei Zasshi. 2003 Aug; 50 (8): 697-712

[2]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health Deslandes A. et al.  Exercise and Mental Health:  Many Reasons to Move.  Neuropsychobiology. 2009 Jun 10; 59 (4): 191-198.

[3]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health Hillman CH et al.  The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children.  Neuroscience.  2009 Mar 31; 159 (3): 1044-54

[4]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health Shors TJ. How to Save New Brain Cells.  Scientific American. 2009 Mar.

[5]anchor The Benefits of Exercise: Brain Health ibid.

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