Why a fit body means a fit mindby Veronika Meduna
Fitness supports the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, where memories are laid down.
Brain cells guzzle energy and need lots of oxygen and glucose to function well. The most obvious beneficial effect of physical exercise on cognitive abilities is an increased blood flow through the brain, but a workout achieves more.
One of the most common manifestations of ageing is a general slowing-down – longer reaction times and more difficulty learning and remembering new information. Brain imaging studies show that fitter people react faster and are better able to focus on a task while filtering out irrelevant information.
Fitness seems to protect the brain’s grey matter, the dense bundles of nerve cells that decrease with age in some parts of the brain, and the improvement is most pronounced in brain areas in charge of executive tasks. It also supports the generation and survival of new neurons in the hippocampus, where memories are laid down. Research into the effects of exercise on the brain is a young discipline, but the authors of a 2014 review of the field suggest that “physical activity might be a potent method to increase grey-matter volume in late adulthood and, therefore, may be an effective prevention for cognitive impairment and other behavioural problems associated with brain atrophy”.
The Neurological Foundation of New Zealand, which raises funds for neuroscience research, has endorsed exercise as a brain-boosting activity for all of the reasons above, as well as research findings that suggest that physical activity could delay the onset of degenerative brain diseases. By 2050, almost a third of New Zealanders will be 65 and over, and cases of dementia are expected to double unless science can figure out specific causes and effective treatments.
Last year, a research team in the US published results from a study of people aged 60-plus with mild cognitive impairment, a condition thought to be a precursor of dementia, who had been recruited for an exercise programme. Half had taken up aerobic exercise, including running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike, four times a week for six months. The rest did stretching exercises at the same frequency. High-resolution brain images at the end of the trial showed that both groups increased the volume of their grey matter, including in regions that support short-term memory, but that aerobic workouts had a greater effect.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it is not just older people whose brains benefit from exercise. In a recent study at the University of Otago, young and healthy adults were put through their paces, and although their brains were at the prime of their development, their cognitive functioning nevertheless improved.
This article was first published in the May 20, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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