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MAIN Arrow to HealthHealth Arrow to Fitness & ExerciseFitness & Exercise

Exercise Is Good ... For Your Brain

Add another reason to get out there and start exercising...

Exercise Is Good For MemoryStudies have shown that exercise can do wonders for your body. It helps build up your bones and lowers your cholesterol. Even a peaceful walk for 20 minutes every night may improve your chances of avoiding diseases from cancer to strokes and heart attacks.

Now scientists have added keeping your mind in shape as you age to all of the other benefits. Exercise helps you to have a better memory and problem solving skills after 50.

How does it work?

Scientists, led by Arthur F. Kramer of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recruited 55 volunteers over 55 and found that the three key areas of the brain adversely affected by aging show the greatest benefit when a person stays physically fit.

The human brain contains two types of "matter"
- Gray matter is the thin layer of cells, such as neurons and support cells, that are critically involved in learning and memory.
- White matter is the insulating myelin sheath containing the nerve fibers that transmit signals throughout the brain - more or less like an electrical cord - organic wires wrapped in insulation to carry the electricity from the one place to another.

As people age, especially after age 30, these tissues shrink. The study found that the fitter the body, the less shrinkage there was in the areas that control memory and other "thinking" tasks.

The study in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences was the first to show anatomical differences in gray and white matter between physically fit and less fit aging humans.

"We found differences in three areas of the brain, the frontal, temporal and parietal cortexes," said Kramer, a professor of psychology and member of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois. "There were very distinct differences particularly in two types of tissue, the gray matter and white matter."

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The results did not show an effect from exercise alone. Kramer said, "It is fitness as it interacts with age that has the positive effects. Older adults show a real decline in brain density in white and gray areas, but fitness actually slows that decline."

The researchers statistically eliminated smoking, diabetes, drinking, dieting, and other factors that might have caused the difference between fit and "couch potato" brains.

If you think it's too late to get started with a fitness routine, a study by Kramer and associates found that even previously sedentary people over age 60 could improve their mental processing abilities with exercise.

People who took part in the study walked rapidly for 45 minutes three days a week. They significantly improved mental-processing abilities that decline with age, and particularly tasks that rely heavily on the frontal lobes of the brain.

Another study published in 2003 in Psychological Science looked at data from many research groups and analyzed the findings. This "meta-study" found some interesting facts:

  • Exercise programs involving both aerobic exercise and strength training produced better results on cognitive abilities than either one alone.

  • Older adults benefit more than younger adults do. This may be due to the declines in mental abilities that are related to aging. Exercise may work to slow down these age related deficits so that older brains benefit more from being in a physically fit body.

  • More than 30 minutes of exercise per session produce the greatest benefit, a finding consistent with many existing exercise guidelines for adults.

  • If you are walking for 20 minutes now, try stretching it out to 35 or 45 minutes. You might want to carry a set of those lightweight barbells and ankle weights to add strength training to your aerobic walking routine.

"These intriguing data suggest there may be one more possible benefit from regular exercise," said Molly V. Wagster, program director for the Neuropsychology of Aging, Neuroscience and Neuropsychology of Aging Program of the NIA, which supported the work.

Source: University of Illinois At Urbana-Champagn

More about how exercise and the brain around the Web:

"Use It or Lose It" The Principles of Brain Elasticity

The Human Brain - Renew, Exercise


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