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Exercise Your Brain at the J

Renee Eder on Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Last week, I went to the Spring Into Health Fair as a J staff member, an observer, and a participant. I saw a good crowd of people who were visiting the vendors, getting their body fat, BMI, and balance tested, and getting tested for Alzheimer's.

In speaking to people, and getting advice from Michelle, a registered nurse who did my Alzheimer's screening, I realized something that will probably change my life: Engaging in regular, aerobic activity may be as good for the brain as it is for the body.

As soon as I came home, I did some additional research on this and it is, in fact, true: "Movement is medicine for the mind." Here's what exercise can do for your brain:

1. It spurs brain growth: As we get older, the birth of new brain cells slows, and our brain tissue actually shrinks. Exercise may be able to reverse that trend. One brain-scanning study of healthy but sedentary people aged 60 to 79 showed significant increases in brain volume after six months of aerobic fitness training. In fact, cardio boosts blood flow to the brain, which delivers much-needed oxygen (the brain soaks up 20 percent of all the oxygen in your body).

2. It boosts brain-building hormones: Much like plant food makes plants grow faster and lusher, a chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, stimulates the growth and proliferation of brain cells. The more you exercise, the more BDNF you produce.

3. It fights depression and anxiety: Depression slows the brain’s ability to process information, makes it more difficult for us to concentrate and reach decisions, and causes real memory problems. For milder cases, exercise may help lift your mood. It cranks up the body’s production of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals crucial to happy mood. And it boosts levels of the feel-good chemicals called endorphins.

 4. It improves your brain’s executive function: Executive function includes cognitive abilities, such as being able to focus on complex tasks, to organize, to think abstractly, and to plan for future events. It also encompasses working memory, such as the ability to keep a phone number in your head while you dial. When researchers set out to analyze the effects of exercise on executive function, they looked at 18 well-designed studies and found that adults aged 55 to 80 who did regular exercise performed four times better on cognitive tests than control groups who didn’t work out. Effects were greatest among those who exercised 30 to 45 minutes each session for longer than six months, but substantial benefits were seen in as few as four weeks of exercise.

If all that isn't motivation to get down here and exercise, I don't know what is! I will see you at the J on the treadmill, in the pool, or by the free weights!

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