Brain Health and Exercise

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Has anybody noticed how much mental work and learning is going on during fitness training?  I know there’s this cultural association with strength training being something done by a bunch of semi-neandertals mindlessly pumping out repetitive motions in services to the creation of bigger muscles.  But there’s a lot more to it than that.


There is quite a bit of mental effort involved in coordinating the movement of your body, feeling parts of the body working and trying to find those shoulder muscles that you might have lost track of.


According to the Alzheimer’s Association (and others) 12% to 18% of people 60 and older have mild cognitive impairment (MCI) which is an early sign for dementia or other serious cognitive decline.  Not everyone with MCI develops a more serious condition, but a high percentage do.


During exercise blood flow to the brain increases, which is a good thing for brain health.  


But that’s not the only thing affecting your brain while you train.  In fact, different types of exercise, aerobic exercise, resistance training, coordinated movement, all seem to target slightly different areas of the brain.  Different parts of the brain process sensory information, visual input, planning, organizing and decision making, different types of coordinated movement and spatial awareness, etc.


Mild cognitive impairment is not a one-way path, 80% of the brain’s gray matter is modifiable by physical activity.  But turning it around will be more effective if your brain training involves increased blood flow.  


Any cognitive load that’s engaged in while there is increased blood flow, including blood flow to the brain, will encourage better structure and integrity in the neuronal tissues of the brain than a cognitive activity that is performed while at rest. 


It’s not just the gray matter, there is also the inner white matter or myelinated tracts that have been observed to gain better size and structure.  


Brain volume increases have been observed in association with physical activity. 


Brain cells grow and blood vessels become less stiff.  There are also molecular changes to hormones (the chemicals that control body functions) and neurotransmitters (the chemicals that pass signals from one nerve to another).


Another significant element of brain health affected by exercise is mental health, including reduced stress and anxiety, improved confidence, better sleep and more energy.


It’s safe to say that these changes are going to have major benefits to one’s long term quality of life.  Perhaps the two greatest fears around what’s commonly seen as age related decline are losing the ability to do basic daily tasks, and losing your mind.


Some of the areas of the brain affected by specific types of exercise are as follows.


Increase in size in the hippocampus is associated with cardiovascular exercise as well as general physical activity.  Decreases in size are associated with memory issues.


The frontal lobe is associated with executive function.  This function improves with resistance training and practicing complex skills.  There is less atrophy of the white matter in this area with that type of training.  Resistance training also helps hippocampus memory functions even in older adults with cognitive impairment.


Coordinated movements and agility exercises, meaning things that involve skill and neuromotor control improve the size and structure of the cerebellum and basal ganglia.


Visually based exercises, such as things that involve hand-eye coordination like throwing and catching a ball are most associated with increased volume of white and gray matter in the occipital lobe.


Sensory rich activities and the manipulation of objects seem to have the most effect in the parietal lobe.


Novelty and change in an exercise program is more cognitively demanding, and thus better for long term brain health, than a program where you repeat the same things over and over.


Exercise done with focused attention is likewise better for cognitive function than exercise done while you’re thinking about something else.


There are versions of exercise that involve repeatedly doing biceps curls or riding an exercise bike while watching TV but, well, these are boring…and they’re not doing a thing for your hippocampus. 



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