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Build Better Brains
Get Smarter Through Exercise

Build a better brain through exercise.
Build a better brain through exercise.

If you want to be smarter, get some exercise. For more than 20 years, researchers have been documenting the link between physical fitness and brainpower. What’s surprising isn’t that exercise can help, but how much of an improvement it can make.

In 2012, researchers divided mice into four different environments. One group was kept in standard cages, and they had nothing to interact with. A second group got standard cages and a running wheel. The third group had standard cages filled with “enrichment” items. These were novel toys that stimulated the mice tactilely, visually, dietarily and auditorily. The environments in these cages were little mice paradises. The fourth group had all the enrichments of the third group, PLUS a running wheel.

At the beginning of the study, all the mice were given cognitive tests to measure things like memory. They were also injected with a substance so that researchers could track changes in their brain structures. Then the mice went about their business, living in their various environments.

When the study was nearing the end, all the mice underwent the same cognitive tests, and then their brain tissues were examined. Most people would expect that the mice in the enriched environment would show improvement with all the different forms of stimuli. But that’s not what the researchers found.

It didn’t matter how many toys, unusual sounds, novel tastes or other enrichments the mice were given. Those environmental changes didn’t improve the animal’s brain. But one thing did.

All the mice with a running wheel had healthier brains. In both enriched and plain cages, mice that regularly ran on an exercise wheel did significantly better than mice without a wheel.

Researchers pointed out that mice who lived in enriched environments loved them. The mice engaged with the toys and spent much of their time interacting with them. But if they didn’t have access to a running wheel for exercise, they didn’t get smarter.

Exercise to improve your brain.

Similar results have been found when scientists study people. A randomized trial conducted on 120 older adults found that aerobic exercise training “increased hippocampal volume by 2%.” The hippocampus is the part of the brain that handles navigation and deals with the consolidation of memories.

Two percent may not seem like a lot, but that’s the equivalent of turning the clock back 1 to 2 years. The people who exercised had improved memory function, and they reversed the volume loss for that part of their brain.

There’s more. In Sweden, 1,462 women were followed in a 44-year study on dementia. The women who remained “highly fit” at the end of the study had an eight times lower risk of dementia than women with moderate fitness.

Another study looked at 1.1 million Swedish men who underwent conscription exams at the age of 18. The follow-ups ran for 42 years, and researchers found that poor aerobic fitness at 18 was a good predictor for the risk of early-onset dementia.

If you had low scores on your cardiovascular fitness and the cognitive tests at age 18, you were at a 7-fold increased risk for early-onset dementia and an 8-fold increased risk for mild cognitive impairment.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease experienced higher metabolic activity and increased glucose uptake after 12 weeks of a high-intensity exercise program. A similar positive effect was found on subjects who suffered from Parkinson’s disease and engaged in a High Intensity Interval Training program.

It’s no secret that working out is a fantastic way to keep your body in better physical shape. But it’s becoming more and more evident that exercise is also good at keeping us in good condition mentally too. There’s still some debate about how much exercise is best, but most studies show you should probably shoot for a minimum of 2-3 hours of weight training and another 90 minutes of cardio intervals weekly.

An exercise physiologist named Jill Barnes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison summed it up nicely. “If it’s been 48 hours since you exercised, it’s time to do it again.”


Reference Links:

Aerobic exercise is the critical variable in an enriched environment that increases hippocampal neurogenesis and water maze learning in male C57BL/6J mice

M L Mustroph, S Chen, S C Desai, E B Cay, E K DeYoung, J S Rhodes
Neuroscience, 2012 Sep 6;219:62-71. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2012.06.007. Epub 2012 Jun 12.

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Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory

Kirk I Erickson, Michelle W Voss, Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, Chandramallika Basak, Amanda Szabo, Laura Chaddock, Jennifer S Kim, Susie Heo, Heloisa Alves, Siobhan M White, Thomas R Wojcicki, Emily Mailey, Victoria J Vieira, Stephen A Martin, Brandt D Pence, Jeffrey A Woods, Edward McAuley, Arthur F Kramer
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2011 Feb 15;108(7):3017-22. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015950108. Epub 2011 Jan 31.

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Cardiovascular and cognitive fitness at age 18 and risk of early-onset dementia

Jenny Nyberg, Maria A. I. Åberg, Linus Schiöler, Michael Nilsson, Anders Wallin, Kjell Torén, H. Georg Kuhn
Brain, Volume 137, Issue 5, May 2014, Pages 1514–1523, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awu041 Published: 06 March 2014

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Midlife cardiovascular fitness and dementia - A 44-year longitudinal population study in women

Helena Hörder, Lena Johansson, XinXin Guo, Gunnar Grimby, Silke Kern, Svante Östling, Ingmar Skoog
Neurology, First published March 14, 2018, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1212/WNL.0000000000005290

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High-Intensity Exercise Acutely Increases Substantia Nigra and Prefrontal Brain Activity in Parkinson’s Disease

Neil A. Kelly, Kimberly H. Wood, Jane B. Allendorfer, Matthew P. Ford, C. Scott Bickel, Jon Marstrander, Amy W. Amara, Thomas Anthony, Marcas M. Bamman, Frank M. Skidmore
Medical Science Monitor, 23 December 2017 : Clinical Research DOI: 10.12659/MSM.906179

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Increased Brain Glucose Uptake After 12 Weeks of Aerobic High-Intensity Interval Training in Young and Older Adults

Matthew M Robinson, Val J Lowe, K Sreekumaran Nair
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 103, Issue 1, January 2018, Pages 221–227, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2017-01571 - Published: 25 October 2017

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Combined Training Enhances Skeletal Muscle Mitochondrial Oxidative Capacity Independent of Age

Brian A. Irving, Ian R. Lanza, Gregory C. Henderson, Rajesh R. Rao, Bruce M. Spiegelman, K. Sreekumaran Nair
The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 100, Issue 4, April 2015, Pages 1654–1663, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2014-3081 - Published: 01 April 2015

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Effect of an Intensive Lifestyle Intervention on Glycemic Control in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes - A Randomized Clinical Trial

Mette Yun Johansen, MSc; Christopher Scott MacDonald, MSc; Katrine Bagge Hansen, MD, PhD; et al
JAMA, 2017;318(7):637-646. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.10169 - August 15, 2017

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2/24/2022