Exercise improves the mental abilities of youngsters,
oldsters, and everyone in between. One way it may do this is by promoting
neurogenesis—the development of new brain cells in people of all ages.
More than a decade ago, researchers discovered that, when mice
spent time running on a wheel, they developed new cells in the hippocampus—part
of the brain that plays a key role in memory and learning. The running mice
also outperformed their layabout brethren on simple learning tasks.
In humans, the hippocampus tends to shrink with age, and it’s
particularly hard hit by Alzheimer’s disease. Subsequent research
showed that the hippocampus is generally larger in physically fit people. Other
studies found that regular exercise may decrease the risk for dementia or slow
Almost all of these studies looked at aerobic exercise—the
type that speeds up your heart rate, makes you breathe harder, and improves your
cardio fitness. However, a recent study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found
that tai chi, a less aerobic form of exercise, may also have brain benefits.
The study, led by an epidemiologist from the University of
South Florida, included 120 Chinese men and women in their sixties and
seventies. A group randomly assigned to take part in tai chi classes for 40
weeks increased their brain size and improved their performance on tests of
memory and thinking. Another group who met for lively discussions increased
their brain size as well, but the cognitive improvements were less impressive.
In contrast, a group who got no treatment at all showed brain shrinkage over
the same time period.
Another exciting line of research is focused on how exercise
boosts neurotrophic factors—small proteins that promote the growth and survival
of brain cells. One such protein that has generated a lot of buzz is
brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Studies in healthy, young adults suggest
that aerobic exercise makes the brain release more BDNF. And that, in turn, may
lead to enhanced memory and learning.
But there’s an interesting twist: Your genetic makeup may
influence how much of this benefit you actually get. In a study in Neuroscience, Dartmouth scientists looked
at the impact of exercise on learning and memory in young adults. A particular
gene related to BDNF seemed to affect whether they reaped a mental reward from physical
Packing a Powerhouse
One way exercise leads to greater physical strength and
endurance is by increasing the number of mitochondria in muscle cells.
Mitochrondria are the powerhouses of a cell, producing the energy it needs. In
a study in mice, scientists at University of South Carolina found that regular
exercise also increased
the number of mitochondria in brain cells.
Physical activity may literally pump up your brainpower
along with your biceps. At the end of a long day, when mental fatigue threatens
to set in, the added power may help your brain go the extra mile.
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