Exercise Can Grow Brain

Researchers have found another significant link between a regular exercise routine and brain volume. Older research suggested that exercise could protect the brain from shrinking. The new study suggests that regular exercise can actually grow the brain. Even moderate levels of exercise can greatly impact brain health, especially in areas linked to aging and diseases like Alzheimer’s.

The study used more than 10,000 people from areas in Canada and the U.S. to get a broad sample of ages, genders, races and ethnicities. The researchers used MRI scans to learn the volume of the participants’ brains. The participants filled out questionnaires about their physical activity levels before having their brains scanned.

People who regularly engaged in moderate exercise had more gray and white matter. Moderate exercise is defined as activity where heart rate and breathing speed are elevated but speaking isn’t a struggle. Gray matter is needed to process information, while white connects different areas of the brain.

Even moderate levels of exercise showed benefits for the brain. “This research underscores the potential neuroprotective effects of exercise, opening new avenues in preventing neurodegenerative diseases,” said lead author Prof. Cyrus Raji of the Washington Univ. School of Medicine. “Specifically, it demonstrates that even a low threshold of physical activity – as little as 25 minutes a week or 10 minutes a day for 2.5 days a week – correlates to larger brain volumes in this population of adults throughout the lifespan.”  

People who exercised in the study had more brain matter in the hippocampus, posterior cingulate gyrus and precuneus. Those areas are essential for memory and cognition. The research suggests that exercise could protect against neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive decline. It could be a drug-free way of preventing dementia.

All studies have limitations. This one used self-reported questionnaires. People don’t always accurately remember or admit their history when filling out questionnaires. It also didn’t track people over time. It was a snapshot of their brains, not how they continued to react to exercise. Finally, it didn’t examine people’s exercise history, just their current patterns.  

A longer study is needed to provide support for this finding. But the initial findings are exciting. Getting 10 minutes of exercise two and a half days a week is manageable for most people. This could be a free and accessible way for people to protect their brains and safeguard their health without medication.

Another study released this month showed a different way exercise helps the brain. Using PET scans, researchers looked at how much dopamine is released into the brain during exercise. They found that the amount of dopamine released is significant enough to boost reaction times and aid brain function.

Having higher levels of dopamine in the brain can ease the symptoms of Parkinson’s and ADHD. This find could lead to exercise being used to help medical conditions in addition to medication.

When considered together, both of these studies suggest that getting our hearts beating faster is a great way to help our brains function their best and stay healthy in the future. You should always consult your doctor when changing your daily patterns. They may have specific exercises they believe would be most beneficial to you.

Banner image: Wellness Gallery Catalyst Foundation via Pexels

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