Start an exercise regime and, over time, you’ll see obvious results like firmer muscles and a smaller waist. Now there’s evidence your workouts might be changing arguably the most important part of your body — your brain. The result could be a happier mood, a better memory and attention span, and improved coordination.
Over the past decade, the list of ills you can prevent and improve with exercise has grown substantially. Being physically active reduces your risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain cancers, while helping to build healthy bones and joints, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Your brain is no different from the rest of your muscles; you have to use it, or you lose it.
Exercise also promotes psychological well-being. In fact, The National Institute for Mental Health recommends regular exercise to help treat depression, noting an exercise training program can be as effective as antidepressants for some people. Strength training with weights helps calm anxiety, too, neuroscientists at Davidson College concluded.
Now a research team from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland has found regular exercise can change the size of your brain in a beneficial way.
The researchers looked at sets of male twins in their 30s who were identical — except that only one twin exercised regularly while their sibling was sedentary. Tests showed the non-exercising twins had a higher risk for diabetes and heart disease than their fit brothers, which was not unexpected.
However, MRIs of the twins’ brains revealed a surprise. Although the siblings’ brains were expected to be virtually identical in size, the twins who exercised had significantly larger volumes of striatal and prefrontal cortex grey matter — areas of the brain involved with motor control and coordination — compared to their inactive co-twins. The study (published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise) concludes this fitness-triggered brain change could result in more physical coordination and less risk of falling in years to come.
Encouraging children to get up off the couch and participate in sports may benefit their brains long-term, too. A University of Illinois study of 9- and 10-year-olds used MRIs to analyze white matter tracts in the brains of 24 youngsters.
White matter tracts are known to play a role in attention and memory. They transport nerve signals across brain regions; the more compact white matter is the more efficient and faster nerve signals flow. The researchers found that kids who were aerobically fit had more fibrous, compact white matter tracts in their brains than less fit youngsters. The findings add to the evidence that aerobic exercise changes the brain in ways that improve thinking ability, according to researcher Laura Chaddock-Heyman.
"Previous studies in our lab have reported a relationship between fitness and white matter integrity in older adults," psychologist and Beckman Institute director Arthur Kramer said. "Therefore, it appears that fitness may have beneficial effects on white matter throughout the lifespan."
Several studies have shown that staying physically active may delay or possibly prevent dementia in old age. Research from the Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas has found that regular exercise can help aging adults improve their memory and brain health.
"Science has shown that aging decreases mental efficiency, and memory decline is the number one cognitive complaint of older adults," said Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD, director of the Center for Brain Health. “This research shows the tremendous benefit of aerobic exercise on a person's memory and demonstrates that aerobic exercise can reduce both the biological and cognitive consequences of aging."
For the study, “couch potato,” non-exercising adults ages 57 to 75 were divided into two groups. One exercised on treadmills or with bikes three times a week for 3 months while another group didn’t exercise regularly. Participants also took thinking and memory tests before, during, and after the training period. Blood flow to their brains was measured, too.
Many of the research subjects who worked out showed improved memory performance. They also had increased blood flow to the hippocampus, the primary brain region affected by Alzheimer's disease. These results could provide a clue as to how exercise can delay or prevent dementia.
"Physical exercise may be one of the most beneficial and cost-effective therapies widely available to everyone to elevate memory performance. These findings should motivate adults of all ages to start exercising aerobically,” said Chapman. “To think we can alter and improve the basic structure of the mature brain through aerobic exercise and complex thinking should inspire us to challenge our thinking and get moving at any age."
Despite the good news and multiple benefits of exercise, the CDC reports Americans are more sedentary than ever. About 60 percent of U.S. adults don’t get the recommended amount of regular physical activity, and 25 percent never exercise. If you are ready to get your body — and brain — in better shape, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regime. Then check out these exercise suggestions and guidelines to help you get active.
April 03, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN