I am an addict. I am not recovering. In fact, I hope to never give up my addiction. Fortunately, mine is a healthy kind of addiction known as exercise. My late, great father used to encourage me to take a break from undergraduate studies to go for a walk, do jumping jacks, ride my bike or go snowshoeing. “I don’t have time for that!”, I’d exclaim as I frantically crammed for an upcoming exam or smeared white out onto a term paper. Turns out, many, many years later I can finally agree that, cough, Dr. Hayes was, ahem, right.
There are myriad reasons to exercise including but not limited to the prevention of depression and disease, vanity and weight control. Another compelling reason applies to both school-age youth and those of us who are becoming a bit more long in the tooth: exercise changes the brain in ways that may protect memory and thinking skills, warding off dementia and brain fog and promoting long-term memory recall. A Canadian study revealed that regular aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate and activates sweat glands appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the area of the human brain responsible for learning and verbal memory.
Additionally, exercise stimulates brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in a wide array of important cortical areas of the brain. UCLA researchers recently discovered that exercise increased growth factors in the brain—making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections while learning takes place.
Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.
Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.
It’s never too late to start reaping the benefits of exercise, both physically and mentally. As the Nike ad tells us: Just Do It. Go for a brisk, 20 minute walk. Play “Just Dance” with your family. Challenge someone to a game of one on one in the driveway after dinner. Dance around the kitchen while making meals or during clean-up. Even raking leaves, and all too soon, shoveling snow in Wisconsin.
“Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory and learning.” ~ John Ratey, M.D.