At Camp Shane weight loss camps for kids, we try to make physical fitness fun for everyone, and we offer all types of events and activities designed to get even the most reluctant camper involved. We know that exercise is crucial to effective weight loss and optimum physical health, but now scientists have shown that there is also an essential relationship between exercise and building a better brain.
In the quest to make ourselves smarter, there may now be an easy-to-achieve, scientifically-proven way to become more intelligent: Go for a walk or a swim. For more than a decade, neuroscientists and physiologists have been gathering evidence of the beneficial relationship between exercise and brainpower. But the newest findings make it clear that this isn’t just any relationship; it is THE relationship. Using sophisticated technologies to examine the workings of individual neurons – and the makeup of brain matter itself – scientists in just the past few months have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance cognitive flexibility.
Last year a team of researchers led by Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, gathered four groups of mice and set them into four distinct living arrangements. One group lived in a world of sensual and gustatory plenty, dining on nuts, fruits and cheeses, their food occasionally dusted with cinnamon, all of it washed down with variously flavored waters. Their “beds” were colorful plastic igloos occupying one corner of the cage. Neon-hued balls, plastic tunnels, nibble-able blocks, mirrors and seesaws filled other parts of the cage. Group 2 had access to all of these “enrichments”, plus small disc-shaped running wheels in their cages. Group 3’s cages held no embellishments, and they received standard kibble. Group 4’s homes contained the running wheels, but no other toys or treats.
All the animals completed a series of cognitive tests at the start of the study and were injected with a substance that allows scientists to track changes in their brain structures. Over the next few months, they then they ran, played, or (if their environment was un-enriched) lolled about in their cages. Afterwards, Rhodes’s team put the mice through the same cognitive tests and examined brain tissues.
“Only one thing had mattered,” Rhodes says, “and that’s whether they had a running wheel.” Animals who exercised, whether or not they any enrichments in their cages, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the other mice. Animals that didn’t exercise, no matter how enriched their world was, did not improve their brainpower in complex, lasting ways.It turned out that the toys and tastes, no matter how stimulating, had not improved the animals’ brains.
Why would exercise build brainpower in ways that thinking might not? Like all muscles and organs, the brain is a tissue, and its function declines with underuse and age. Beginning in our late 20s, most of us will lose about 1% annually of the volume of the hippocampus, a key portion of the brain related to memory and certain types of learning. Exercise seems to slow or reverse the brain’s physical decay, much as it does with muscles. Even more encouraging, scientists also found that exercise jump-starts neurogenesis – the creation of new brain cells. Mice and rats that ran for a few weeks generally had about twice as many new neurons as sedentary animals. Like other muscles, their brains were bulking up.
Additionally, exercise seems to make neurons nimble. When researchers in a separate study had mice run a maze, the animals’ brains readily wired many new neurons into their existing network. Those neurons only fired during running, and also when the animals practiced cognitive skills, like exploring unfamiliar environments. In the mice, running created brain cells that could multitask.
Research suggests that exercise prompts increases in something called brain-derived neurotropic factor, or BDNF, a substance that strengthens cells and axons, and fortifies the connections among neurons and sparks neurogenesis. Scientists have found that after workouts, most people display higher BDNF levels in their bloodstreams.
Few if any researchers think that more BDNF explains all of the brain changes associated with exercise. Any whether any type of exercise will produce these desirable effects is another unanswered and intriguing issue. “It’s not clear if the activity has to be endurance exercise,” says the psychologist and neuroscientist Arthur F. Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois and a pre-eminent expert on exercise and the brain. A limited number of past studies have found cognitive benefits among older people who lifted weights for a year and did not otherwise exercise, but most studies to date, (and all animal experiments) have involved running or other aerobic activities.
Whatever the activity, though, an emerging message from the most recent science is that exercise does not need to be exhausting to be effective for the brain. When a group of 120 older men and women were assigned to walking or stretching programs for a major 2011 study, the walkers wound up with larger hippocampi after a year, while the stretchers lost volume to normal atrophy. The walkers also displayed higher levels of BDNF in their bloodstreams than the stretching group, and performed better on cognitive tests.
Source: www.nytimes.com, How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain