Protecting the Brain with Exercise
New studies demonstrate how regular exercise counteracts brain atrophy and degenration, the leading cause of dementia and other neurdegenerative diseases. Find out more about the connection between regular exercises and the brain's preservation below.
Moderate intensity aerobic activity—such as walking for 30 minutes most days of the week—can help protect your brain from shrinking and keep you sharp. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland found that exercise may help reverse neurodegeneration in both healthy adults and those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Shrinkage of the outer layer of gray matter in the cerebrum, also known as the cerebral cortex, was found in both healthy older adults and those diagnosed with MCI. Improving someone's level of fitness increased the thickness of his or her cerebral cortex, protecting the brain from degeneration. Likewise, the benefits of regular exercise and improved physical fitness were observed in both healthy older adults and those diagnosed with MCI. In a different study, adults who were previously inactive were put on an exercise regimen which required walking on a treadmill four times a week over a twelve-week period. Results showed that cardiorespiratory fitness improved by an average of about 8% as a result of the training, furthermore, the study participants who had the greatest fitness improvement also had the most growth in the cortical layer. Tested on mice, a third study showed that exercise may energize brain cell function by producing an enzyme called SIRT3. The protective power of SIRT3 appeared to stave off neurodegenerative disease in mice who exercised regularly. As we age, our brain cells lose the ability to produce enough energy to remain functional, and as a result neurodegeneration occurs. Mice were used mice to investigate whether exercise could help neurons become immune to the energy-depleting stress caused by neurotoxins and other factors. It showed that mice who ran on a running wheel regularly created more SIRT3 in the mitochondria—which is most cell's central energy source. So, the study concluded that SIRT3 may protect the brain against the kinds of stressors and neurotoxins believed to contribute to energy loss and cell death, thus protecting the brain against degeneration. There are more studies planned that will include more participants engaging in longer-term exercise intervention to see if greater improvements can be seen over time, and if these neuroprotective benefits persist over the long term. For now, it seems that the link between exercise and the slowing, or even reversal, of neurodegeneration is well on its way to being established.