by: Sherika Tenaya
Everybody knows the benefits of regular exercise on the muscles and body tissues are innumerable, yet when grimly setting our New Year's resolutions or resolving in quiet despair to exercise more, we are generally considering the benefits to our waistlines and our looks, rather than to our brains.
Yet new science is coming out with more and more compelling reasons to exercise for brain health and longevity, beyond the siren call of smaller pant sizes and a toned physique. Here I will enumerate the latest findings on how exercise impacts your health in surprising ways and what kind of exercise is most ideal for these benefits.
Exercise to Entice Optimal Gene Expression
I have mentioned on more than one occasion the exciting new science of epigenetics, which is basically the understanding that, while we do indeed have genes that we are born with, those genes get turned on and off throughout the course of our life based on lifestyle choices we make and our environment.
Exercise has been shown to be somewhat of an elixir of youth and benefits the brain and body regardless of how old an individual is when they start exercising. Dr. David Perlmutter, a leading expert on brain health, explains, “Aerobic exercise not only turns on genes linked to longevity, but also targets the gene that codes for B.D.N.F, the brain’s ‘growth hormone’.”
I’ll be talking a little bit more about BDNF later in this blog, but suffice to say that the impacts on gene expression are profoundly far-reaching and we still aren’t aware of just how MUCH benefit there truly is.
Gretchen Reynolds, science writer for the New York Times, describes in her article the exciting implications for the elderly as well as what more there is to learn, “A recent study of the brains of elderly mice found 117 genes that were expressed differently in the brains of animals that began a running program - and the scientists were only looking at a small portion of the many genes that might be expressed differently in the brain.”
So while we don’t yet know the full extent of how exercise affects gene expression, what we do know certainly aids the resolve of the workout woebegone.
Exercise Literally Makes Your Brain Grow
BDNF, the acronym mentioned earlier that Dr. Perlmutter referred to as a “growth hormone” for the brain stands for brain derived neurotropic factor and is indeed something like fertilizer for the garden that is the brain. It strengthens cells and axons (the part of the cell that sends signals to other cells), it fortifies connections among neurons, and instigates neurogenesis.
Neurogenesis, I am pleased to tell you, was once thought by science to be impossible but now is known to be not only possible, but our natural birthright. It is defined as the creation of new brain cells in an already mature brain. Meaning that no matter how old we are, our brains can continue to form new cells - rending the expectation that we get senile with age obsolete.
Reynolds tells us that BDNF levels are markedly higher in the bloodstream of most people post-workout and that we are literally growing our brains and halting its decay. “Studies in animals and people have shown that physical activity generally increases brain volume and can reduce the number and size of age related holes in the brain’s grey and white matter. Exercise also augments adult neurogenesis.”
What Type of Exercise and How Much to do to Boost Brain Health
You may be imagining that these kinds of benefits require running ultra marathons or back breaking weight lifting regimens. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As it happens, simple, consistent aerobic exercise show greater brain benefits than weight lifting, stretching or high intensity interval workouts.
“In studies with animals, exercise in the form of running wheels or treadmills has been found to double and triple the number of new neurons that appear afterward in the animal’s hippocampus, the key area in the brain for learning and memory.” Reynolds writes.
If you would like to know more about the research behind the various types of workouts and how they affect brain health, check out this intriguing study published in the Journal of Physiology.
As for how much exercise will suffice, Professor Nicola Lautenschlager of the University of Western Australia conducted a compelling study that was reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association where she had elderly individuals engage in regular physical exercise for a 24 week period, averaging 20 minutes of physical activity a day, that showed an 1800% improvement on measures of memory, language ability, attention and other important cognitive functions in comparison to a control group.
Just 20 minutes a day creates better blood flow, catalyzes the growth of new blood vessels as well as new brain cells and can even improve brain plasticity.
Finding motivation to workout can be exceedingly difficult for the working person, with so many distractions and contesting aspirations vying for one’s attention. Yet making small choices each and every day to work towards a healthier version of oneself in the form of 20 minutes of aerobic exercise isn’t such a difficult thing when the payoff is a more nimble brain as well as body.