In recent years, exercise has been linked to increased strength, lower body weight, and even better brain function.
But even with study after study showing the benefits of exercise, many continue to be reluctant to change their habits.
Now comes a new study of identical twins that shows that in just a few years, regular physical activity can make a significant difference in not just physical health but brain volume – an important factor in the aging process and hopefully just the thing to convince us to get moving so we can keep moving.
“We are not limited by genetics and environment and can exercise regularly to rapidly improve the body and the brain.”
The study, aptly named FITFATTWIN and published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, found that exercise has a direct impact on the body, including on the parts we can’t easily see, like the brain.
Researchers at the University of Jyväsklayä in Finland recruited 10 sets of male identical twins, selected using Finland’s FinnTwin16 database, an extensive catalog of health questionnaires starting at age 16 and repeated every few years afterward.
The selected pairs had grown up with similar activity levels but whose exercise habits had changed after leaving home. In these pairs, the changes had taken place within the past three years, with one twin exercising regularly and the other being more sedentary.
The scientists measured each twin’s body composition, insulin sensitivity, endurance capacity, and performed a scan of the twins’ brains.
When the results were compared, there were significant differences between the twins.
The twins who exercised regularly had lower body fat percentages, higher endurance levels, and better glucose tolerance, indicating a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes later in life. By comparison, the twins who did not exercise had higher body fat percentages, lower endurance capacities, and signs of insulin resistance, an early indicator of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that includes high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, excess abdominal fat, and abnormal cholesterol – factors that increase the risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.
Most surprisingly, their brains looked different, too. The active twins had significantly more gray matter in the striatum and prefrontal cortex of their brains, the regions responsible for motor control and coordination.
Given that their lifestyles had changed over about a three year span, these health and differences likely developed rapidly over this time.
Study author Dr. Urho Kujala, professor of sports and exercise medicine at the University of Jyväsklayä, concluded, “The level of leisure time physical activity is at a young age already associated with factors known to be related to reduced cardiometabolic risk [and] a significantly larger striatal gray matter volume.”
Accordingly, he says the results suggest that we are not limited by genetics and environment and can exercise regularly to rapidly improve the body and the brain.
The Bottom Line
This study just builds on others regarding the importance of exercise in staying healthy. However, only a third of adults exercise, getting the recommended 150 minutes of exercise each week (which breaks down to just 25 minutes a day, 6 times a week).
How can you get motivated to exercise? A recent study shows that with married couples, if one spouse exercised, the other was likely to start. In the study, couples provided information on their physical activity at the start of the study and six years later. Husbands of women who did the recommended amount of exercise were 70% more likely to meet these levels at the second visit.
Are you the type of person that starts exercise and stops? Then pay heed to another study that showed people who are satisfied by exercise are likely to stick with it. As it turns out, people who are most mindful during exercise report being most satisfied by the workout. In other words, mindfulness may amplify satisfaction. Perhaps being more present and in the moment at your next cardio class you’ll find that enjoyed the experience and will go back and do it time and time again.
And with all that regular exercise, not only will your body look and feel younger, your brain will, too!
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.