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Exercise Exerts Beneficial Effects on Brain Health

Posted on Aug. 22, 2011, 6 a.m. in Exercise Brain and Mental Performance

Both aerobic exercise and strength training play a vital role in maintaining brain and cognitive health throughout life.

With extensive studies attesting to the numerous beneficial effects of exercise for the body, researchers have begun to reveal that these positive effects also extend to the brain, influencing cognition. Michelle W. Voss, from the University of Illinois (Illinois, USA), and colleagues report that both aerobic exercise and strength training play a vital role in maintaining brain and cognitive health throughout life.  Using the findings from 111 recent studies, the researchers wrote a brief review showcasing the effects of aerobic exercise and strength training on humans ranging in age from children to elderly adults. The review suggests that aerobic exercise is important for getting a head start during childhood on cognitive abilities that are important throughout life. For example, physical inactivity is associated with poorer academic performance and results on standard neuropsychological tests, while exercise programs appear to improve memory, attention, and decision-making. These effects also extend to young and elderly adults, with solid evidence for aerobic training benefiting executive functions, including multi-tasking, planning, and inhibition, and increasing the volume of brain structures important for memory. Although few studies have evaluated the effects of strength training on brain health in children, studies in older adults suggest that high-intensity and high-load training can improve memory. Further, the team relates their findings to those in lab animals, such as rats and mice, which provide a window on the pathways through which exercise may enhance brain function.  Animal studies, primarily models that test the influence of aerobic exercise, suggest a variety of mechanisms responsible for these effects. For example, exercise appears to change brain structure, prompting the growth of new nerve cells and blood vessels. It also increases the production of neurochemicals, such as brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin growth factor-1 (IGF-1), that promote growth, differentiation, survival, and repair of brain cells.

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Michelle W. Voss, Lindsay S. Nagamatsu, Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Arthur F. Kramer.  “Exercise, Brain, and Cognition Across the Lifespan.” J Appl Physiol., April 28, 2011.

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