Director's Column: Exercising your Brain
|Picture of the brain|
So what's the latest news from those esoteric brain scientists? In clinical studies involving brain function, researchers are continuing to discover that there is a strong relationship between exercise and "improved cognition, more efficient brain function, and prevention of brain atrophy." Dictionary.com defines 'atrophy' as a degeneration, decline, or decrease, as from disuse. Amazingly, Dr. Kramer reported that exercise results in various changes to the actual contour of the brain, including increased capillary beds providing a richer blood flow to brain tissue, and in some areas, the sprouting of new neurons, the key ingredient to brain function.
This is pretty neat stuff. For years those of us in exercise physiology have been touting the benefits of physical activity on other organ systems such as the heart and circulatory system. In the medieval days when I attended school, the brain was still that mysterious 'black box.' But that is no longer the case. Today, molecular scientists are able to track the 'flight patterns' of those sanctimonious neurons, and are claiming that the human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself even when we're past retirement age! They also claim that severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, whereas most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from physical inactivity and lack of mental exercise and stimulation (yes, those crossword puzzle addicts that sit next to you on airplanes are also exercising their brain!). In other words, use it or lose it. Dr. Kramer's review of the literature spanned over four decades. In some of the most impressive findings from the research literature, Dr. Kramer reported that even in older adults over the age of 65, exercising 15 to 30 minutes a day, three times a week, reduced the risk of Alzheimer's disease, and most surprisingly, even in individuals who had a genetic risk because of a family history.
The research on the precise mechanisms of how this occurs in humans is still under the watchful eye of brain scientists. But in animal research where the organism can be sacrificed immediately and brain tissue examined shortly after death, voluntary running increases neuroprotective factors in the brain, namely, a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. The exercise-trained rodents also had a reduced level of beta-amyloid, which is a protein linked to Alzheimer's disease.
So there you have it. Even Newsweek magazine is joining the front of the pack in the ever growing club of physical activity advocates who know that to move -- and move often -- means living a healthier and more productive life. NCHPAD is there for anyone who wants to learn how to move a little more to improve their health. Give us a call (800-900-8086) or come visit us at www.ncpad.org.