We all know staying active is great for our health. But it seems like just about every day I see headlines about how exercise also keeps the brain sharp. Is all this just hype, or can exercise tune up my mind as well as the rest of my body?
Dr. Prescott says
Yes, my friend, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that what's good for your lungs is also good for your brain.
In the last year alone, we've seen numerous research studies linking physical activity to more robust brain activity. For instance, in a study of almost 1,000 adults, those who stayed physically active had lower levels of brain atrophy as they aged. A different study, which followed nearly 20,000 people over several decades, found that those who maintained the highest levels of physical fitness had a 36 percent lower risk of developing any form of dementia. And new research this month from the University of Texas found that exercise improved subjects' brain function and cognition.
So how does it all work?
Certainly, the increased blood flow from exercise is beneficial to the brain. When areas like the hippocampus, the brain's learning and memory center, get a better supply of oxygen through the blood, they will function more effectively. But with the wide-ranging benefits that exercise seems to have on mental functioning, there's clearly something happening on the molecular level as well. A new study from the journal Cell offers some clues as to what's going on.
While studying a protein called FNDC5, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that mice that lacked the ability to produce this protein were hyperactive and had tiny holes in certain parts of their brains. The scientists suspected that this protein and byproduct it created were responsible for exercise-induced benefits to the brain; in particular, they believed it helped create and maintain healthy neurons, functions that are crucial to staving off neurological diseases like Alzheimer's.
To put this theory to the test, the researchers put a group of mice on a 30-day endurance training regimen and compared them to sedentary mice. They found that the rodents that ran the mouse equivalent of 5 kilometers every night (remember, mice are nocturnal) had more FNDC5 in their hippocampus.
As researchers, we can't poke around inside humans' brains, so we have to study other animals to glean clues about our own bodies. So even though these new findings involve mice, they're quite exciting. And they offer some of the first real clues about how exercise beefs up our brains, and helps protect them against decline as we age.
All of this is one more reason to head out for a brisk walk before you settle down for a big holiday meal on Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving!
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF's senior vice president and general counsel.