Exercise is good for brain and body

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— I think we all agree that exercise is good for our health and longevity. The physical benefits are endless. Exercise lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and risk of heart disease, diabetes and most cancers. It strengthens muscles, increases bone density and helps control weight.

In addition, people who exercise seem to have a better self-image, feel better, have more energy and are tired less often.

But did you know that exercise also is good for your brain? It helps you to stay smart and better able to handle tasks requiring both mental and physical dexterity.

Exercise keeps blood vessels healthy and maintains strong circulation to the brain. Narrowing of the carotid arteries, the major vessels carrying blood and oxygen to the brain, is a major cause of stroke.

Not only can exercise prevent damage to the brain, it also has a direct, positive effect. It actually promotes the growth of brain tissue and tiny blood vessels known as capillaries.

Laboratory rats that keep their wheels spinning have been shown to have larger, healthier brains than their sedentary counterparts. They also are better able to work their way through mazes or solve problems.

In human studies, researchers recently used brain scans to determine that subjects with the highest level of physical fitness had larger brains that exhibited less age-related shrinkage. A related report concluded that exercise had a positive effect on the mental abilities of men and women ages 55 to 80.

The greatest benefit was seen with executive control functions such as attention, organization and planning. Researchers concluded that:

n The brains of older people benefited more from exercise than those of younger people;

n A combination of aerobic activities such as walking, running or biking and strength training was more beneficial than either type of exercise by itself;

n The benefits occurred mainly with exercise sessions totaling 30 minutes or more.

The effects of aging on the brain show up as early as age 30. The brain gradually begins to shrink, with resulting declines in memory, reaction time, multi-tasking and other mental processes. Exercise has the capacity to prevent or reverse shrinkage of the brain, increasing the number of cells in the hippocampus, the area of the brain most involved in learning and memory.

Studies indicate that even previously sedentary older adults who begin walking three days a week can show a significant increase in mental reaction time. Physically active persons are two to three times less likely than sedentary persons to develop Alzheimer's disease and 40 percent less to have other signs of mental decline.

Exercise is also good for the brains of young people. In addition to a healthy supply of blood and oxygen, physical activity delivers substances such as neutrophins that promote the growth of nerve and brain cells.

Many educators feel that physical activity is important to the mental development of children from elementary through high school. Students are better able to concentrate on their studies when they are allowed to exercise their bodies. Their overall education is enhanced by the self-esteem that usually accompanies physical fitness and the development of athletic skills. In other words, all study and no recess may make Jack a dull boy.

As many of us watch the 2004 Olympics and perhaps get inspired to exercise more, it's good to remember that a strong body helps to keep the mind vital and healthy.

Lisa A. Bankard, M.S., coordinates the wellness program at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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