In the previous posts about the effects of food on the brain, I barely scratched the surface. Hopefully you were stimulated to do some research of your own. More than that, I hope you were motivated to reduce sugar, increase good fats and add many of the wonderful brain stimulating foods and spices that are available. Today, I’ll address an equally fascinating subject – the effects of various forms of exercise on the brain. A recent study showed that just walking several times a week resulted in increased size of the memory center called the hippocampus and presumably better memory. We know that exercise brings increased blood flow along with new blood vessels to the brain but recent scientific studies are finding far more than that. Exercise causes the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a brain growth factor or “neurotrophin” which one scientist has called “miracle grow for the brain”. BDNF leads to the production of new brain cells and enhances the connections between cells in order to increase functional networks. It also strengthens old brain cells.
Of factors which damage the brain, inflammation, insulin resistance and elevated glucose are at the top of the list. Excellent studies now exist that demonstrate exercise having the effect of reversing these conditions. We know that an inflamed brain is prone to shrink, lose function and ultimately progress to dementia. Exercise activates genes which suppress inflammation. It also increase insulin sensitivity of both muscle cells and brain cells. Finally, it clearly reduces blood sugar levels and, as previously discussed, high blood sugar is toxic in many ways. One of those is by the “glycation” of proteins which creates particles that are toxic to the eyes, kidneys, nerves, blood vessels and of course, the brain. Alzheimer’s dementia, as noted in the discussion of foods, has been called Type III diabetes due to it’s association with insulin resistance in brain cells.
Given the general effects of exercise, we want to take it’s benefits to another level and use it to specifically stimulate and enhance all parts of the brain. Consider the following example inspired by Michael Gonzalez-Wallace in his book “Super Body, Super Brain”: You have a dumbbell in each hand and are balancing on your left foot with your right leg raised. Now do a curl with your left arm and a press with your R arm. Next, to increase the challenge, bend over and touch your left foot with the dumbbell in your R hand. Concentrate carefully and do the move to perfection. A PET scan would show your frontal lobe light up as you plan and concentrate, your cerebellum helping to maintain balance and coordinate the movement, signals crossing your corpus callosum as they pass form right brain to left and back and much more. Now consider a workout in which you continually learn new moves which become increasingly more challenging all the while building strength and cardiovascular endurance. A workout carefully designed and covering these elements could activate the entire brain especially if requiring intense concentration and and learning new skills. This is the sort of workout we already incorporate at VitalSigns but which could be much more powerful when done as part of an overall brain training program. Exercises of this nature, to be really effective, require an expert trainer for most of us. I’m certainly in the category that would thrive under expert guidance rather than trying to do it on my own.
So let’s engage daily in all sorts of exercise including walking and work around the house but for maximum benefit progress to more intense and complex work-outs. I hope to see you at the gym or the green belt or wherever you decide to experience the benefits of exercise for your body and your brain!