Q&A Topic: Can Exercise Really Strengthen Your Brain?

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Ezriel (Ed) Kornel, MD, FACS

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Q. How, specifically, does exercise affect the brain?

A. We’ve all heard the maxim “Healthy body, healthy mind.” But perhaps it should be “healthy muscles, healthy body, healthy brain.” Various forms of regular exercise—walking, jogging, running, swimming, aerobics, weight training and yoga among them—can help keep your mind sharp, especially as you age. Exercise that strengthens your muscles appears to be especially beneficial. For more than 2,000 years, humans have exercised to maintain and improve health, but it is only in recent years that hundreds of scientific studies have proven that exercise can help maintain and improve brain function. Regular exercise brings body and mind together by managing weight, blood sugar, liver and kidney function, and cardiovascular well-being – while also having a direct effect on brain molecules, generation of new nerve cells, and further growth and connections of mature neurons due to molecular and genetic changes that occur in exercise.

Q. What studies demonstrate how exercise affects the mind?

A. In 2013, researchers published a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning that found that agility training conducted on military personnel[enhanced] specific measures of physical and cognitive performance, such as physical agility, memory, and vigilance.” Men’s Journal reported on another exciting study done at the Georgia Institute of Technology about the effect of resistance training on long term memory, saying “exercises such as a weighted two-legged squat could have… memory-enhancing effects, so remember: don’t skip leg day.”

Q. Can activity reduce the likelihood of cognitive deterioration?

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A. Perhaps the most feared common consequence of aging is the onset of senile dementia. We all joke about memory loss and aging, but really it is no laughing matter. No one wants to lose the ability to reason and recognize the world and people around us. In recent years, medical research has demonstrated that exercise can reduce the incidence and severity of senility, whether it is secondary to cerebrovascular disease or due to Alzheimer’s. One interesting recent study showed that exercise involving muscle strengthening was more beneficial than other forms of exercise such as aerobics in reducing the development and severity of dementia in Alzheimer’s. The mechanism of this benefit is still unknown but is being studied intensely.

Q. What does lack of exercise do to the brain?

A. We know that astronauts who do not use their legs as much in space and people with illnesses such as multiple sclerosis can develop cognitive deficits like memory loss and difficulty with concentration. This suggests that lack of lower extremity usage is detrimental to the brain. To study this effect, researchers performed a well-constructed experiment in which they immobilized the back legs of mice. After a period of time, they looked at the cells in specific areas of their brains and found that neuronal stem cells needed to form new nerve cells were greatly diminished. It is likely that this also applies to humans, but we need much more study to know for sure. Clearly, there is not a one-to-one correlation between the loss of use of the legs and cognitive deficits. However, it may be that in aging, people who have significant difficulty with the use of their legs do not do as well cognitively. What is clear is that we should all be seeking a form of exercise that works for us and incorporate it into our daily routines. Find out what fits you and your lifestyle, and do it. Do it for your brain.

Learn More About Dr. Kornel
Director, Neurosciences
Orthopedic and Spine Institute
Northern Westchester Hospital

Northern Westchester Hospital is a proud member of Northwell Health.

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Read Past Topics from Dr. Kornel: 
Whiplash and Traumatic Brain Injury
Expert Solutions For Back Pain 
Are Artificial Discs the Answer to Back Problems?
Brain Tumors

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