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"It is exercise alone that supports the spirit, and keeps the mind in vigor." Cicero ~65 BC

Aerobic Exercise Pumps up Your Brain

Weíve had strong evidence for a long time that exercise brings blood and oxygen to the brain, resulting in improved mental function; see Train Your Brain, article 139 in our Aerobic Exercise category. A new study co-authored by Arthur F. Kramer and Edward McAuley, researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana, published in the November 2006 Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, shows that exercise does more; it triggers measurable growth of brain volume in older adults.

An earlier review of literature on the effects of exercise on brain function by Arthur Kramer and colleagues, first published June 15, 2006 in the Journal of Applied Physiology, found a significant relationship between physical activity and cognitive function. Observational studies, where subjects are asked about their activity level and then tested for cognitive abilities, "suggest" a connection between physical activity and brain function. Human intervention studies, however, where people are tested before and after a period of exercise, show evidence of "a causal relationship" between fitness training and more efficient brain function. Interestingly, the "effects were larger" when aerobic training was combined with strength training. Animal studies, which provide information difficult to obtain in human studies, show that aerobic exercise boosts cellular and molecular components of the brain, enhancing mental functioning in both young and old animals.

A study by Stanley J. Colcombe, Kramer, McAuley and colleagues published in the February 2003 Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences was the first to show--using high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging--significant differences in brain density between physically fit and inactive aging humans. "We found differences in three areas of the brain, the frontal, temporal and parietal cortexes," Kramer said in a news release issued by the University of Illinois. "There were very distinct differences particularly in two types of tissue, the gray matter and white matter. Nobody has reported this before."

Gray matter consists of neurons and support cells that are involved in learning and memory, the news release explained. White matter contains nerve fibers that connect neurons throughout the brain. Older adults typically show a decline in both areas.

Kramer continued: "This, to our knowledge, is the first human data providing a potential anatomical account of the cognitive effects [of exercise] that we and others have found over the years."

The study report concluded: "These findings extend the scope of beneficial effects of aerobic exercise beyond cardiovascular health, and they suggest a strong solid biological basis for the benefits of exercise on the brain health of older adults."

Brain Loss Reversed

"For the first time, scientists have found something that not only halts the brain shrinkage that starts in a personís 40s, especially in regions responsible for memory and higher cognition, but actually reverses it: aerobic exercise," Sharon Begley wrote in The Wall Street Journal (November 16, 2006). While the 2003 study showed a slowing of the decline in brain density, the new study shows restoration of lost brain volume.

The details are explained by the News Bureau of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in a release dated November 20, 2006.

Professors Kramer and McAuley, and their collaborators had 59 sedentary volunteers, age 60 through 79, do aerobic exercise (brisk walking), non-aerobic stretching and toning, or nothing for six months. The first two groups started with 15 minutes of exercise and worked up to 45 minutes three times a week. Fitness was monitored and intensity increased as the study progressed.

High-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was again used, this time to measure brain volume at the beginning and end of the six-month program. The stretchers-and-toners and the no-exercisers showed no change. The aerobic exercise group, however, showed a significant increase in brain volume. "The prefrontal [memory and attention] and temporal cortices [connects right and left hemispheres]--areas that show considerable age-related deterioration--incurred the greatest gains from aerobic exercise," the News Bureau reported.

"After only three months," Professor Kramer told the WSJ, "the people who exercised had the brain volume of people three years younger."

"This is a great emerging story," Fred Gage of the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, who led the 1998 discovery that humans can grow new brain cells, told the WSJ. "You can do something to influence your mental fate as you get older."

"You donít have to be a marathon runner--most people walk," Kramer said in the news release. "Swimming, biking and walking are all ways that people can get these anti-aging benefits."

What are you waiting for? The sooner you start the better.

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