Can Exercise Improve Your Brain Function?

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Everyone knows that your health and daily health choices (or lack thereof) affect your longevity, but how does exercise affect your brain? Despite a lot of assumptions that working out can lead to a healthier brain, there has been a lack of actual evidence on the topic. However, a recent study has revealed some remarkable information pointing toward the idea that exercising can tone not only your muscles, but also your brain.

The New York Times recently reported on the brain of Olga Kotelko. As one of the most successful track-and-field athletes in the 90 to 99 age group, Kotelko proves to have a unique story. Unlike many other athletes her age, she did not start intensely working out until later in life. After she passed away, Kotelko allowed the University of Illinois to study her brain.  

So what did the scientists at University of Illinois find? According to the article, “The white matter of her brain — the cells that connect neurons and help to transmit messages from one part of the brain to another — showed fewer abnormalities than the brains of other people her age. And her hippocampus, a portion of the brain involved in memory, was larger than that of similarly aged volunteers.”

Despite the Kotelko’s brain scan pointing toward correlation between physical activity and healthier brain function, there is no hard evidence based on the fact that Kotelko had never had her brain scanned previously — neither at a younger age nor when she was less physically active. 

Other research gathered by Wake Forest School of Medicine published in JAMA shows a lack of connection between a person’s brain function when they are older and the amount of exercise that they get. 

According to the study, “Among sedentary older adults, a 24-month moderate-intensity physical activity program compared with a health education program did not result in improvements in global or domain-specific cognitive function.”

This shows how, when a randomized group of older adults began to workout at a moderate pace, there was no change in their overall brain function. The question, however, remains regarding the amount of physical activity and intensity level overall. Perhaps, Kotelko’s level of intensity of daily workout was higher, and therefore her brain benefited later in life.  

The question of the affects of physical activity on those who begin exercising earlier in life, and then continue to be active throughout their life span, also remains. Dr. Burznska, the assistant professor of human development at Colorado State University, explains to the New York Times the many factors that go into brain health and function.

“There are so many things that may impact brain aging,” Dr. Burzynska said, “and so much that we don’t yet understand about the process.”

However, according to the article, and the various other studies that Dr. Burznska has been a part of, there is a high likelihood that exercise allows our brains to age better, no matter when we decide to start exercising. Even if there is still research being done on the affect of exercise on your brain long term, there is evidence that exercise helps your brain functions short term. According to Women’s Health, getting your heart rate up can increase blood flow to the brain and in turn increase your memory.

Arthur Kramer, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Illinois told the site that examining the brain before and after fitness training shows an increase of brain volume in various areas. This creates a 10 percent to 15 percent improvement in memory. 

Exercise, allows you to look and feel good, and chances are it also allows you to strengthen your brain function. No matter when you start, or how much you decide to workout, the benefits are endless. 

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