The hippocampus often shrinks in late adulthood, leading to memory impairment.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
"To complete the study, the team recruited 120 older people who didn't exercise regularly. Half were randomly assigned to an aerobic exercise program ... The group doing aerobic exercise had increases in hippocampus volume: up 2.12 percent in the left hippocampus, and 1.97 percent in the right hippocampus."
Regular exercise can also improve the ability of overweight children to think, plan and even do math, according to other recent research. MRIs have shown that previously inactive children who start to exercise experience increased brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area associated with complex thinking, decision making and correct social behavior.
The more they exercise, the better the result.
"Intelligence scores increased an average 3.8 points in those exercising 40 minutes per day after school for three months with a smaller benefit in those exercising 20 minutes daily. Activity in the part of their brain responsible for so-called executive function also increased in children who exercised ... Similar improvements were seen in math skills".
About two-thirds of all Americans are overweight or obese, and about one-third of all our children are now overweight or obese. This alone should be motivation enough for people to get moving, but the statistical numbers keep going in the wrong direction year after year.
Not only are we as Americans growing larger, we're also suffering more disease and degeneration as a result of this. Nearly twenty-five percent of adults suffer from type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, and type 2 diabetes is now one of the most common chronic conditions affecting children below the age of 20.
We can now add a decrease in brainpower and brain function to the list of afflictions directly related to the fattening of America.
Not only does cognitive function rise in both children and older adults when they stick to an exercise program, but your blood sugar stabilizes and your insulin levels also normalize.
Simply put, normalizing your insulin levels is the most important factor for optimizing your overall health and preventing disease of all kinds, from diabetes, to heart disease, to cancer, and everything in between.
It runs neck and neck with vitamin D as the two most important physical elements that you can do to improve your health. I actually view exercise as a drug, because of its power to effect beneficial change on a diseased body is dramatic and almost immediate.
And now this new research indicates that exercise may help both children and older adults improve brain function.
With adult brain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's on the rise, along with childhood brain disorders currently at levels unprecedented in the history of civilization, perhaps getting Americans to exercise more is just what we need as a nation to address our rising cognitive diseases that are now affecting both young and old alike.
The Rise of "Western" Degenerative Brain Disease
While the consensus is no single cause can be blamed for the alarming increase in neurological diseases in Western nations like Parkinson's, Alzheimer's or age-related dementia, or Attention Deficit Disorder or Autism-spectrum disorders in our children, a sedentary lifestyle now appears to be at least a contributing factor.
Some of the other suspected contributors to the rise in neurological disorders are some common and widespread man-made chemicals lurking in your food supply: Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, pesticides, and MSG.
Avoiding these and other synthetic chemicals as much as possible will help to lower your chances of becoming one of the unfortunate people who suffer from a neurological disorder.
But one of the best things you can do for your brain as a preventative measure is to keep active through exercise. According to another study at the Mayo Clinic that involved 1,324 elderly adults, those who said they had engaged in moderate exercise such as brisk walking, aerobics, yoga, strength training or swimming in their 40s, 50s and beyond were less apt to have mild cognitive impairment.
As you age, you don't want to find yourself facing cognitive impairment.
Each year ten to fifteen percent of people suffering from mild cognitive impairment will develop dementia, compared to just one to two percent of the general population. Stopping cognitive impairment in its tracks seems to be a very successful predictor of whether or not you will suffer from dementia. And exercise now appears to be a powerful tool in the fight against cognitive impairment.
How Exercise Helps Older Brains
According to one the studies mentioned above, moderate exercise can reverse normal brain shrinkage by two percent, effectively reversing age-related hippocampus degeneration by one to two years. Also according to the study, the people in the control group who didn't exercise saw an average of 1.4 percent decrease in hippocampus size.
Folks, when these researchers say the hippocampus region of the brain increases in size as a response to exercise, they are talking about a powerful tool to fight the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
The hippocampus, which is considered the memory center of your brain, is the first region ofyour brain to suffer shrinkage and impairment at the onset of Alzheimer's disease, leading to memory problems and disorientation.
According to the research team:
"We demonstrate that loss of hippocampal volume in late adulthood is not inevitable and can be reversed with moderate-intensity exercise."
Other contributing factors to brain disease caused by the normal aging process may also include a decrease in blood flow to your brain, and the accumulation of environmental toxins in your brain.
Exercise can help ameliorate both of these conditions by increasing blood flow to your brain, thereby increasing oxygen supply to your brain and encouraging a more vigorous release of accumulated toxins through better blood circulation. Increased blood flow may also promote delivery of more of the nutrients necessary to keep your brain cells healthy in the first place.
How Exercise Helps Younger Brains
Besides reversing the normal shrinkage of aging brains, exercise also helps younger brains grow stronger in the first place. Researchers hypothesize that the human brain responds to exercise by increasing growth factors that lead to more blood vessels, more neurons and more connections between the neurons.
All of which can lead to a healthier brain.
And the more exercise the 7-11 year old children in the study got, the better the result. Intelligence scores increased an average of 3.8 percent in the children who exercised 40 minutes a day after school for three months. While children who exercised only 20 minutes a day saw smaller gains.
MRIs in the children in the study also showed an increase in activity in the pre-frontal cortex, an area associated with complex thinking, decision-making and social behavior.
Is it any coincidence that in this era of budget-related curtailed physical education in schools the rates of learning problems have increased? According to these new studies, this lack of exercise in our schools might be producing not only less active brains in our children, but also less developed brain regions that control complex thinking and social behavior.
Getting our children moving again might be just what we need to help turn the tide on the alarming rise of attention deficit related disorders currently afflicting our youth.
The question is -- what is the best exercise that you can start today to immediately begin increasing your brain health? There are many different types of exercise and they all provide benefits that extend well beyond benefitting your brain.
When you're planning your exercise routine, try to incorporate the following types of exercise:
- Aerobic: Jogging, using an elliptical machine, and walking fast are all examples of aerobic exercise. This is the most common type of exercise being done and the one I would caution people against and to replace it with the ones below as they are more effective and time efficient for most.
- Interval (Anaerobic) Training: Research shows that the BEST way to condition your heart and burn fat is NOT to jog or walk steadily for an hour. Instead, it's to alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods. That is one of the primary reasons I am so fond of the exercises my personal trainer has shown me.
This type of exercise, known as interval training or burst type training, can dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities. Another major benefit of this approach is that it radically decreases the amount of time you spend exercising, while giving you even more benefits.
So, short bursts of activity done at a very high intensity can help you reach your optimal weight and level of fitness, in a shorter amount of time. You can see my article on Sprint 8 for more information
- Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability. Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Walking While it is clearly better than doing nothing it is simply not a great exercise at all although if done outdoors there are many other non-exercise benefits. So, unless you are morbidly obese or over 100 years old I don't think low intensity exercises like walking will really help you all that much. For those in that condition walking actually becomes a relatively high intensity exercise
What Else You Can Do To Protect Your Brain
Besides feeding your brain with exercise throughout your life, it's also vitally important to keep your brain engaged and to keep it fed with the kind of nutrients that help it thrive.
You also want to keep your brain active and engaged, because the saying "use it or lose it" really does apply when it comes to keeping your brain fit. An example of keeping your brain engaged is reading a daily newspaper or doing a weekly crossword puzzle.
Your brain is almost 60 percent fat, mostly in the form of DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid), so optimizing your omega-3 fats is another step you can take to optimize your brain health.
Avoiding fructose, including high fructose corn syrup, also appears to be essential to promoting good brain health. As a standard recommendation, I strongly advise keeping your TOTAL fructose consumption below 25 grams per day.
Your brain is meant to last you a lifetime, but if will degenerate and decay if you fail to take the proper steps to care for it.
Getting enough exercise, keeping your brain active and protecting it from the wrong kinds of foods while feeding it the foods it thrives on should keep your brain active and healthy well into your senior years and help you avoid the now far too common "Western" brain diseases.