Published on: June 15, 2015
by Paula Goodyer for Stuff:
Exercising the body can enhance the brain in more ways than you think.
When US neuroscientist Dr Wendy Suzuki took up regular gym classes to lose weight and get fitter, she discovered an unexpected bonus – her brain seemed sharper.
As she worked on writing grant applications to fund her research at New York University, she found that in the weeks where she squeezed in three or four sessions of aerobic exercise, her thinking was clearer, her concentration better and she worked faster than in the weeks where she did just one or two classes.
Could there be a link between her level of exercise and better performance at work?
It was a lightbulb moment that led Suzuki to her current research – looking at the effects of aerobic exercise on memory in healthy adults – and to Healthy Brain, Happy Life, a book that pulls together the different ways exercising the body can enhance the brain, including evidence that exercise increases the numbers of brain cells and the connections between them and boosts production of BDNF, the brain-derived neurotrophic factor that acts like brain fertiliser, helping brain cells and the connections between them grow.
She also discovered exercise can become like meditation in motion – focusing on the next step, the next movement or the rhythm of the exercise can crowd out any other thoughts.
“You really can’t be thinking about the future when you’re in the middle of a serious workout session,” she says.
Suzuki also raises the potential for exercise to help with overcoming addiction, pointing to Odyssey House in New York, which trains people recovering from drug or alcohol abuse to run the New York City Marathon. The rationale? That besides improving mood and reducing stress, exercise activates the same reward pathways in the brain as drugs and might help to manage cravings, she says.
EXERCISING NOW COULD PAY OFF LATER
The book is the reminder we need that regular exercise isn’t just about healthier hearts or curbing spreading waistlines but that it can help improve brain health throughout life, too.
So far, much of the research into the brain benefits of exercise has focused on either older people or children – there’s evidence that physical activity improves memory, concentration and academic performance in school children, for example.
But there’s no reason why these same benefits shouldn’t occur in people in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Associate professor Michael Ridding, a neuroscientist with the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute, says.
“It may also be that the 30s and 40s are very important for delaying or preventing problems with brain function later in life – these may be the years when we should be doing what we can to set the brain up to resist problems with memory and thinking later on,” he says.
“The positive effects of exercise on the brain are underrecognised. If you ask most people what they can do to prevent dementia, they might mention brain training programmes, but they won’t have a clue about exercise.”
It’s like a well-guarded secret. When you click on the website of Alzheimer’s Australia you’ll find about 10 pages devoted to the link between exercise and brain health in a section called Physical Activity for Brain Health and Fighting Dementia, but as Ridding points out, the people most likely to visit this site are those who are already affected by symptoms of dementia – either their own or those of someone close to them.
But, say Ridding and Suzuki, there are still unanswered questions about the best way to exercise for brain health: what kind of exercise is best, how much and how hard?
Although aerobic exercise such as walking, running or cycling looks the most promising at the moment, it’s not clear how much we need to do, Ridding says.
“But when it comes to how hard, our research suggests moderate intensity – hard enough to be slightly out of breath – is best.”
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