Want a better brain? Exercise

Comedian Dick Martin used to say that he lived by the saying, “Strong mind, strong body. Take your pick.” Anyone who is serious about health and well-being, of course, knows that this is a “both/and,” not an “either/or” choice. Now there’s new evidence indicating just how important exercise is to keeping your brain in shape.

In the April 18 New York Times, Gretchen Reynolds reports on the work of a team of researchers led by Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois. The researchers placed four groups of mice into different living arrangements. One group enjoyed tasty food, bright colors and toys. A second group had everything given to the first group, plus a running wheel. A third group had nothing in its cage and received only standard, dull mouse chow. The fourth group was treated like the third group but was given an exercise wheel.

At the start of the study, all the mice were given cognitive tests and were injected with a substance that let the scientists track changes in brain structures. At the end, the mice were given the same tests, and their brain tissues were examined.

“Only one thing had mattered,” Rhodes says, “and that’s whether they had a running wheel.” Animals that exercised, whether or not they had any other enrichments in their cages, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the other mice. Exercise was especially good for creating brain cells that could join the brain’s existing neural network; it’s one thing to create new brain cells, but it turns out they’re not good for much unless they can hook into the neural network.

Researchers who work with humans are now looking at whether endurance exercises like running are necessary to produce the increase in brain cells. In a study asking some subjects to walk and some only to stretch for a year, the walkers experienced an increase in brain cells, but the stretchers saw a decline.

So if you’re in this life for the long haul, and I hope you are, start exercising, or keep it up. It will pay off for you both now and tomorrow.

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