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How Exercise Can Improve Brain Health

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How Exercise Can Improve Brain Health 

Science focused on the relationship between exercise and brain health is quickly advancing, here are some of the most recent findings. 

Recent studies show that exercise can do more than just improve your muscle tone or control your weight.  Studies have demonstrated that exercise improves cognition, memory and promotes overall brain health.  While it's not hard to see the physical results of lifting weights and running, exploring deeper into the relationship between exercise and brain health is more complex.

Researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands are studying the connection between exercise and memory.  The Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior is specifically looking at how neurons in the brain are wired to process and remember information.  Scientists conducted a study with 72 healthy adult women and men to gather more information about how exercise helps improve long-term memory.  

Participants underwent 40 minutes of computerized testing involving spatial and visual exercises.  Prior to watching videos, the subjects were challenged to remember the locations in the scenes.  After watching the videos, all participants viewed nature documentaries. However, one-third completed 35 minutes of interval training on bicycles and another third completed four hours of the same type of exercise.  Participants returned to the research lab two days later and completed the original computerized test under an MRI-driven brain scan.

The results were impressive.  The women and men who exercised four hours after the initial test performed the best on properly identifying locations and those MRI scans showed more consistent neural activity among participants.  It is hoped that future research can assist in determining the best time to exercise and the optimum level and type of activity to support and reinforce learning.  So the next time you are trying to memorize that big speech or study for an exam, it may be beneficial to wait until several hours after the study session to work out.

The relationship between exercise and brain health

Exercise also helps promote brain health.  Researchers at the University of Ottawa and the Ottawa Hospital found that exercise helps strengthen existing brain connections and helps protect against some neurologically-based diseases.  The study examined mice with a condition known as cerebellar ataxia that hampers movement and balance.  Mice with cerebellar ataxia that did not have access to an exercise wheel survived for up to 40 days, while mice that exercised lived for over a year.  

The exercising mice also experienced positive signs of brain recovery like improved balance.  Scans of the brains of the exercising mice demonstrated that neurons in the damaged portion of the brain were experiencing an increase in myelin insulation, known to protect the brain's nerve fibers.  Myelin damage is a common characteristic of some brain diseases like multiple sclerosis.  This research is good news for future treatment of these types of brain diseases and brain injuries.

Exercise, memory, and mental function are closely connected.  Recent studies have shown the relationship between exercise and learning new information, while research in Canada has demonstrated the ability of exercise to improve cognitive function and help protect against neurologic degeneration.  Hopefully, future research will further explore the relationship between exercise and neurologic function, to help us improve daily life as well as protect against and manage debilitating brain diseases.