We are often far too optimistic about the amount of exercise we get. “I cycle to my workplace, I walk my dog three times a day.” It seems a great deal, but is it enough to satisfy our brain? And, more important even, is our type of exercise of sufficient intensity to achieve the desired, positive result?
Generally speaking, physical exercise is any bodily activity that enhances physical fitness, overall health, and wellness. A good measure of adequate exercise is that you feel your heart beat faster than normal and that you sweat quite a bit.
Physical activity and exercise are rather extensive concepts. There’s a lot of difference between one kind of sports activity and the other. Three main clusters can be distinguished.
- Aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, cycling, dancing, rope-skipping, and working out on exercise machines, focusses on increasing cardiovascular endurance. It is performed at moderate levels of intensity for an extended period of time.
- Anaerobic exercise, such as weight training and sprinting, increases short-term muscle strength. Sports like tennis, golf, football, basketball, and downhill skiing are also considered anaerobic exercise because they only require short bursts of strength.
- Flexibility exercise, such as stretching and swinging, improves the range of motion of muscles and joints and is intended to make you more loose-limbed.
Of these three clusters, it is aerobic exercise that has been proven to generate a very positive health effect on the brain. But it is useful to combine aerobic exercise with strength training and flexibility and balance training. Strength training helps to maintain bone and muscle mass, which will decline when growing older. Flexibility and balance training is beneficial to reduce physical discomfort and to protect from falls.
It is not clear yet how much exercise you need to enjoy its benefits. Overly vigorous exercising is not good as it releases excess free radicals and impairs the immune system. Top athletes as a rule don’t live very long. Apparently, the enormous physical exertion required to play sports at top level shortens the human lifespan.
Every kind of exercise and every minute of moving is so much to the good. But if you want to go the right way about it, you’ll have to participate in some form of aerobic exercise at least 30 minutes, five times a week. It will take some time for the results to be noticed. Many of the positive actions for instance go on at cell level and you won’t notice them, but in the long run they do make a difference to your brain health.
The only minus among all this good news is that you have to keep on moving, for the rest of your life. Exercising has to be a continuing pursuit. You can’t save up some extra health by exercising now and putting it to use later. Of course, the positive results of moving on your brain and body will be present for some time after you would have stopped exercising. Your health will be going downhill irrevocably though when you do not move enough anymore.
Proper exercise will always remain just as important as a healthy diet. It should become a standard part of your way of life. But that shouldn’t be too hard, knowing what positive processes are going on in the brain while exercising. There is no greater reward than a healthy brain!
How exactly do we know what exercise brings about in the brain? Just like in many other studies, researchers enlist mice to find out. The mice brain is remarkably similar to the human brain.
In one of the studies, researchers equipped cages of old mice with a running wheel. Voluntarily and just for fun, the mice daily covered quite a distance in their wheel. After a month had passed, the mice were tested in a maze. The senior runners were able to solve the maze a lot faster than their senior colleagues who hadn’t received a running wheel in their cage.
At the start of the investigation, a special fluid had been injected in young and in old mice. This fluid stained new brain cells that came into being. Via this colour, the researchers could distinguish new cells from old cells in the mice brains.
Generally speaking, the number of new brain cells in the old mice brains would be zero or very limited. In the senior runners, the degenerative process had been turned around though. The number of new brain cells in their brains had grown to fifty percent of the number of new brain cells in the young mice brains.
Nowadays, researchers are capable of inserting a new gene in a mice brain or switch off one of the existing genes. This way, it is possible to breed mice suffering Alzheimer disease. Their brains contain of lot of the plaques characteristic of Alzheimer’s. These plaques disrupt neuronal communication and contribute to cognitive decline.
After an exercise period of five months, the Alzheimer mice turned out to have considerably less plaques in their brain than at the start of the study. On top of that, they were far better at solving a maze than before. The researchers concluded exercise can halt Alzheimer disease, at least in mice.
Of course, results of research in mice don’t automatically apply to humans. But in the meantime, researchers have found a similar effect in people suffering early stage dementia and Alzheimer’s. Brain volume of participants in the study who walked about ten kilometers per week, in time had stayed the same. No large amounts of brain cells had been dying, as is common in dementia. Besides, the memory function of the walkers hadn’t declined as rapidly as in patients who didn’t exercise.
Although exercise is no cure for Alzheimer disease, it does make the brain stronger and more resistant to decline.
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