This Is Your Brain on Exercise: Why Physical Exercise (Not Mental Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

brain exercise

In the Unit­ed States and the UK, we’ve seen the emer­gence of a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar brain train­ing indus­try, premised on the idea that you can improve your mem­o­ry, atten­tion and pow­ers of rea­son­ing through the right men­tal exer­cis­es. You’ve like­ly seen soft­ware com­pa­nies and web sites that mar­ket games designed to increase your cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. And if you’re part of an old­er demo­graph­ic, wor­ried about your aging brain, you’ve per­haps been inclined to give those brain train­ing pro­grams a try. Whether these pro­grams can deliv­er on their promis­es remains an open question–especially see­ing that a 2010 sci­en­tif­ic study from Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty and the BBC con­clud­ed that there’s “no evi­dence to sup­port the wide­ly held belief that the reg­u­lar use of com­put­erised brain train­ers improves gen­er­al cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing in healthy par­tic­i­pants…”

And yet we should­n’t lose hope. A num­ber of oth­er sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies sug­gest that phys­i­cal exercise–as opposed to men­tal exercise–can mean­ing­ful­ly improve our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties, from child­hood through old age. One study led by Charles Hill­man, a pro­fes­sor of kine­si­ol­o­gy and com­mu­ni­ty health at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois, found that chil­dren who reg­u­lar­ly exer­cise, writes The New York Times:

dis­played sub­stan­tial improve­ments in … exec­u­tive func­tion. They were bet­ter at “atten­tion­al inhi­bi­tion,” which is the abil­i­ty to block out irrel­e­vant infor­ma­tion and con­cen­trate on the task at hand … and had height­ened abil­i­ties to tog­gle between cog­ni­tive tasks. Telling­ly, the chil­dren who had attend­ed the most exer­cise ses­sions showed the great­est improve­ments in their cog­ni­tive scores.

And, heart­en­ing­ly, exer­cise seems to con­fer ben­e­fits on adults too. A study focus­ing on old­er adults already expe­ri­enc­ing a mild degree of cog­ni­tive impair­ment found that resis­tance and aer­o­bic train­ing improved their spa­tial mem­o­ry and ver­bal mem­o­ry. Anoth­er study found that weight train­ing can decrease brain shrink­age, a process that occurs nat­u­ral­ly with age.

If you’re look­ing to get the gist of how exer­cise pro­motes brain health, it comes down to this:

Exer­cise trig­gers the pro­duc­tion of a pro­tein called brain-derived neu­rotroph­ic fac­tor, or BDNF, which helps sup­port the growth of exist­ing brain cells and the devel­op­ment of new ones.

With age, BDNF lev­els fall; this decline is one rea­son brain func­tion dete­ri­o­rates in the elder­ly. Cer­tain types of exer­cise, name­ly aer­o­bic, are thought to coun­ter­act these age-relat­ed drops in BDNF and can restore young lev­els of BDNF in the age brain.

That’s how The Chica­go Tri­bune sum­ma­rized the find­ings of a 1995 study con­duct­ed by researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia-Irvine. You can get more of the nuts and bolts by read­ing The Tri­bune’s recent arti­cle, The Best Brain Exer­cise May be Phys­i­cal. (Also see Can You Get Smarter?)

You’re per­haps left won­der­ing what’s the right dose of exer­cise for the brain? And guess what, Gretchen Reynolds, the phys ed colum­nist for The Times’ Well blog, wrote a col­umn on just that this sum­mer. Although the sci­ence is still far from con­clu­sive, a new study con­duct­ed by The Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas Alzheimer’s Dis­ease Cen­ter found that small dos­es of exer­cise could lead to cog­ni­tive improve­ments. Writes Reynolds, “the encour­ag­ing take­away from the new study … is that briskly walk­ing for 20 or 25 min­utes sev­er­al times a week — a dose of exer­cise achiev­able by almost all of us — may help to keep our brains sharp as the years pass.”

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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via New York Times

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Stress Can Change Your Brain: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

This Is Your Brain on Jane Austen: The Neu­ro­science of Read­ing Great Lit­er­a­ture

New Research Shows How Music Lessons Dur­ing Child­hood Ben­e­fit the Brain for a Life­time

Free Online Psy­chol­o­gy & Neu­ro­science Cours­es

The Neu­ronal Basis of Con­scious­ness Course: A Free Online Course from Cal­tech


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