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Exercise Strengthens Not Only the Body but the Mind

A Report from Harvard Medical School

Regular exercise changes the brain in ways that improve memory and thinking skills claims researchers at Harvard Medical School.   There are plenty of good reasons to be physically active, weight loss, lower blood pressure, prevent depression or just look better.  But here’s another one, exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.

In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands plumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.  Resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.


Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means.  The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors-chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.


Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety.  Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.


Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory, the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, have a greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.  “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions, “ says Dr. Scott McGinnis a neurologist and instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.


So what should you do?  Start exercising!  We don’t know exactly which exercise is best.  Almost all of the research has looked at walking, including the latest study.  “It’s likely that other forms of aerobic exercise that get your heart pumping might yield similar benefits,” says Dr. McGinnis.


How much exercise is required?   These study participants walked briskly for one hour, twice a week.  That’s 120 minutes of moderate intensity exercise a week.  Standard recommendations advise half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week.  If that seems daunting, start with a few minutes a day, and increase the amount you exercise by five of 10 minutes every week until you reach your goals.


If you don’t want to walk, consider other moderate-intensity exercises, such as swimming, stair climbing, tennis, squash, or dancing.  Don’t forget that household activities can count as exercise too. Anything that gets your heart pumping so much that you break in a light sweat.


If you don’t have the discipline to exercise on your own here are a few ideas:


Whatever exercise and motivators you choose, commit to establishing exercise as a habit, almost like taking a prescription medication.  After all, they say that exercise is medicine and that can go on the top of anyone’s list of reasons to work out.

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