Build Mental Muscle with Physical Exercise

A good workout gets blood pumping to your brain, which thrives on all that oxygen delivered by the blood. But that’s not the only way that physical activity and mental functioning are connected.

Exercise also seems to have some very specific effects on brain structure and function. Here’s what recent research shows about the surprising ways that physical exercise helps boost your brainpower.

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Building New Brain Cells

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 its progress.

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Not Just Aerobic Exercise

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.

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Boosting Nourishing Proteins

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 workouts.

Packing a Powerhouse Punch

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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