Monday, April 02, 2007

Exercise and Your Brain

When we think of things that help keep our brain fit we might be tempted to focus on obvious mental exercises- reading, writing, memory exercises, etc. All good stuff. But it is important to recognize that our physical and mental health are intimately connected. So physical exercise is not only good for your heart, but also for your brain!

This recent study in Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences examines the impact aerobic exercise has on the brain volume of aging humans. Here is a sample:

Beginning in the third decade of life the human brain shows structural decline, which is disproportionately large in the frontal, parietal, and temporal lobes of the brain. This decline is contemporaneously associated with deterioration in a broad array of cognitive processes. Given the projected increase in the number of adults surviving to advanced age, and the staggering costs of caring for older individuals who suffer from neurological decline, identifying mechanisms to offset or reverse these declines has become increasingly important.

....In this study, we randomly assigned older adult participants to either an aerobic exercise group or a nonaerobic exercise control group for 6 months and then examined whether participation in an aerobic exercise regimen would alter brain volume in an aged cohort. In short, we found that participation in an aerobic exercise program increased volume in both gray and white matter primarily located in prefrontal and temporal cortices—those same regions that are often reported to show substantial age-related deterioration. The current findings are the first, to our knowledge, to confirm benefits of exercise training on brain volume in aging humans.

....We report the novel and intriguing finding that only 6 months of regular aerobic exercise not only spares brain volume but also increases brain volume in an aged cohort. These effects cannot be driven by methodological limitations because neither of the control groups (the older nonaerobic exercise participants or the younger control group) showed significant changes in brain volume over 6 months. Our results suggest that brain volume loss is not an inevitable effect of advancing age and that relatively minor interventions can go a long way in offsetting and minimizing brain volume loss. Future studies should replicate these effects using a larger sample size and a more extensive neuropsychological battery to examine the relationship between brain volume changes and cognitive changes.