In case you need another reason to start or stick with an exercise routine, consider recent research linking exercise to improvements in cognitive function. Beyond helping you maintain a healthy weight; exercise can improve learning and memory, enhance brain function and counteract the mental decline associated with aging.
A group of 27 healthy subjects were evaluated directly after high impact anaerobic sprints, low impact anaerobic sprints or a resting period. It was found that vocabulary learning was 20 percent faster after intense physical exercise as compared to the other two conditions.
Other studies have explored how exercise promotes neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) in the adult rodent and human brain. There is evidence that these new neurons could contribute to the effects of exercise on enhancing both memory and learning ability.
In addition to the benefits of high-impact exercise on cognition, two recent studies have shown that walking – a lower-impact activity – can also enhance brain function. Repetitive exercise such as walking can have a positive impact on the brain. When you exercise, the heart pumps more blood which affects your muscles and also your brain. Repetitive movements can also stimulate the brain’s neurocircuits which result in increased activity in various parts of the brain.
A study conducted with 71 stroke patients found that utilizing treadmill workouts during rehabilitation improved both brain function and fitness. The study was conducted at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Medical Center and was published in the August 29, 2008 issue of Stroke.
Half of the study participants with movement impairments were asked to walk on a treadmill three times per week for up to 40 minutes, increasing intensity as the study progressed. The study control group performed assisted stretching for the same amount of time. Both the walkers and the stretchers were tested for speed and aerobic capacity at the beginning of the study and again six months later. A sub set of each group was given functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) tests before and after to examine brain activity.
Not surprisingly, the walking group’s overall fitness level’s increased by approximately 18 percent while the stretching group’s fitness levels declined by 3 percent. The stroke survivors were able to regain their ability to walk by rewiring parts of the brain responsible for balance and motor skills to compensate for stroke damage. In addition, MRI tests revealed increased blood oxygenation and activity in the subcortical region of the brain in the walking group. Researchers were expecting activity in the cortex (superficial brain layer) but were surprised and encouraged by the activity in the subcortical (deeper) region. These results speak to the brain’s adaptability and show promise that exercise can stimulate new or underused brain circuits even if undertaken after conventional therapy.
Another study performed at the University of Melbourne in Australia, studied the effects of exercise on 170 adults at increased risk for dementia. All study participants were given educational materials on memory loss, stress management, diet, smoking and alcohol use. Half of the group was asked to exercise for three 50-minute sessions per week. The other half of the group was not encouraged to exercise. The researchers measured cognitive function over an 18-month period using the Alzheimer Disease Assessment Scale – Cognitive Subscale, which assesses cognitive function in individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Individuals in the exercise group posted improved cognitive scores compared to the non-exercisers and also displayed better recall. The study was published in the September 3, 2008 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association and the results were considered significant given that study subjects only performed moderate amounts of physical activity.
As these studies show, incorporating exercise into your life is important for physical well-being but can also improve mental function and performance. Making exercise a priority can lead to increased physical performance and improved mental health throughout your life. Additionally, the brain has the ability to improve its function even after debilitating brain injury or stroke by incorporating exercise into traditional rehabilitation programs. A hard workout may also give you a competitive edge you can use to excel at work or school. So, for optimum brain health and function, follow a diet of high nutrient quality foods like fish oil which is high in DHA and incorporate exercise into your daily routine.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.