Exercise and the Brain


You probably tell your clients all the time how exercise has the potential to make their bodies beautiful. Don’t forget to tell them it also has the power to help them create a beautiful mind.

To middle- and golden-agers concerned their memory may be slipping with advancing years, knowing exercise preserves and enhances the parts of the brain associated with memory, recall and learning is likely to be more motivating than the promise of sculpted abs. Even younger clients are encouraged when they find out exercise helps, among other things, sharpen focus, boost mood and dial down stress levels—exactly the skills they need to get ahead in their careers. Best of all, these benefits appear to be true whether you put someone through the paces of a hardcore CrossFit workout or coach them through an easy stroll on the treadmill.

Exercise Fuels the Brain Instantly

As you know, when someone is huffing and puffing in their target zone, they are sending more generous amounts of oxygen and glucose into the brain compared to the time they spend sitting at their desk staring at a computer screen. (Think of glucose as the brain's main fuel source and oxygen as the means to spark that fuel into energy.) In one study performed by researchers at the University of Illinois, just one 30-minute treadmill session—and only 20 minutes for children—improved cognition by 5 percent to 10 percent. Cognition processes are part of the so-called “executive functions” that occur in the frontal lobes of the brain. They’re associated with how quickly you perform mental tasks such as decision making, flexible thinking and problem solving.

Although the effects from a single exercise bout seem only to last a few hours, it’s easy to see how even a short-term mind lift could be useful. You might suggest to a client that he hit the treadmill shortly before an important presentation or interview. Or if he can’t find the solution to a sticky problem at work or home, the answer might pop into his head during a spin class. If you train students, suggest they replace a last-minute cram session with a cardio kick boxing session. It may seem counter intuitive, but research studies show this is a more productive strategy and it can help them score higher on their exams.

It’s Never Too Late…..

Many scientists point to regular exercise as the number-one way to preserve brain function into the golden years. So far, it’s proven to be more effective than brain games, super foods, supplements or any other method used to keep the brain sparking on all cylinders into old age. Even senior clients who don’t care about getting a Hollywood body or shedding pounds will absolutely care about keeping their mind sharp.

Regular exercise has been proven to be more effective than brain games, super foods, supplements or any other method used to keep the brain sparking on all cylinders into old age.

Along with reshaping muscles, exercise can also reshape the brain over time. Just as you build muscle, consistently exercising appears to be one of the best ways to trigger “neurogenesis,” the growth of new brain cells, something that, until recently, wasn’t thought possible in the adult brain. Scientists used to believe that somewhere around the late teens, your mental organ stopped generating new cells and from that point on, you could only shed them and multi task with the ones we had left. In the past two decades, this view began changing thanks to a scanning technique known as fMRI, which provided vivid images of the brain’s remarkable ability to continue changing even into old age.

One terrific example of this phenomenon is a 2010 investigation done at Cambridge University in England. After just a few days of running, the fMRI images of the volunteer joggers revealed the growth of hundreds of thousands of new brain cells. Not only that, the joggers exhibited a marked improvement in their ability to recall memories, learn new information and excel at other important cognitive tasks.

Actually, it appears that anything that gets the heart thumping and the lungs expanding on a regular basis has the capacity to keep you faster, stronger—and yes, smarter. Any aerobic activity—not just jogging—causes new brain cells to sprout, possibly by increasing the capacity of capillaries serving the brain so there is better blood flow and oxygen uptake all of the time, not just when you're working up a sweat. Increased blood volume also appears to promote the growth of new connections between brain cells and facilitate the delivery of an assortment of other beneficial chemicals. And once again, it seems to work on brains from eight to 98.

It’s Never Too Early To Start…

Consider what Harvard clinical behavioral psychologist, Jeff Brown, Psy.D., who is also on the medical team for the Boston Marathon and other national sporting events, has to say about treating the brain right with exercise, diet and an otherwise healthy lifestyle: “We’ve taken the human brain for granted and not seriously considered how to optimize it. But solid research is telling us just how to fine-tune the most special, hi-tech gadget available to us. The days of neglecting the brain should be over. We should all be embracing brain care at any age. So, the next time you tell someone to lace up for a run, get ready for a workout or take a Zumba class, their brain will thank you. Tell your clients that even if their goal is to lose weight, their brain is the 3 pounds they never want to lose.”

For children, the advantages of exercise shine brightly in the classroom, something parents will be keen to learn. In one famous example, a Canadian middle-school teacher started her kids jogging on a treadmill during language arts class and pumping iron as they solved math problems. To her astonishment, at the end of the four-month trial every single student went up at least one full grade in reading and writing and some kids went up six full grades in their vocabulary scores. The students’ ability to concentrate was sharper and they spent more time working without interruption. Attendance also improved and disciplinary problems declined by an impressive 67 percent. All this from two weekly, 20-minute workout sessions.

Georgia Health Sciences University researchers confirmed these classroom results by having overweight 11- to 17-year olds commit to 20 to 40 minutes of vigorous play—running games, hula hooping and jumping rope—every day after school for three months. Their playtime was fun, but also delivered some serious results: fMRI scans showed an enhancement in brain activity in the prefrontal cortex—an area associated with complex thinking, decision making and appropriate social behavior—and less activity in an area of the brain that sits behind it, a shift in activity that is consistent with more rapidly developing cognitive skills. The kids who exercised the most posted a 3.8 point increase on I.Q. tests, and all the children saw dramatic improvements in their math skills, despite the fact that they received no additional math instruction during the time of the study.

The investigators suspect that cognitive improvements likely resulted from the brain stimulation that came from movement rather than improved cardio fitness. They hypothesize that vigorous physical activity promotes the development of brain systems that underlie cognition and behavior.

This should be enough to convince parents to get their children up and moving. They’ll want to set a good example for their kids by exercising themselves so suggest to your clients they ask their kids tag along for an after dinner walk or jog—or they can turn the tables and join their kids on the playground. Either way, exercising as a family reinforces the habit for everyone.

Starting Late Is OK, Too

For any client who fears it may be too late to make brain changes, tell them to think again. People who begin exercising in middle age significantly reduce their risk of dementia and are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and that includes those who were less active in youth.

Also, by improving cardiovascular health, exercise prevents heart attacks and strokes, which, due to compromised blood flow, often cause brain damage. Even the most exercise-averse who don’t get up and moving until later in life can still lower their risk of cognitive decline. Researchers at the University of Washington determined, for instance, that seniors who exercised at least three times a week diminished their risk of dementia by up to 32 percent. (That's not to say that exercise or anything else is a sure-fire cure for Alzheimer's or dementia.)

At the very least, exercisers who begin hitting the gym in middle age show an increased cerebral blood flow and a greater number of small blood vessels in the brain compared to their non-exercising peers. And in one recent study, those who devoted themselves to one year of modest aerobic exercise reversed normal brain shrinkage by one to two years and improved their memory function. More than 100 subjects age 50 or older either walked briskly three times a week for 40 minutes or did a similar amount of yoga and strength training. The walkers increased the volume of the front part of the hippocampus by 2 percent, while the yogis continued to experience the normal neural shrinkage associated with aging. Both groups, however, showed significant improvements on spatial memory tests.

A Little Goes A Long Way

Here’s the best news to share with clients: They don’t have to spend all their time exercising to pump up their brains. A growing body of research suggests that 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, three times a week, works pretty well for boosting and preserving brain capabilities. Isn’t that the same recommendation you’d make to them for reaping the physical rewards of exercise?

Want to know to more about how exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits can help your clients sharpen up mentally? Check out The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success (Perseus Books, 2010), co-written by Harvard clinical behavioral psychologist, Jeff Brown, Psy.D., and Guelph University neuroscience researcher, Mark Fenske, Ph.D., and Liz Neporent. In addition to learning how treating the body better is good for the brain, you’ll also discover other valuable neuro-building strategies you can incorporate into your training repertoire that will truly make a difference in your clients' results.

Liz Neporent is an author, writer and social media consultant. She is a regular contributor to ABC News where her influential online Reporter’s Notebook series covers a diversity of health topics such as the psychology of barefoot running and obesity in fruit flies. She is author and coauthor of more than 20 health books including Fitness For Dummies, now in its 4th edition and Weight Training For Dummies, now in its 3rd edition. In her work with Harvard Medical School Publications she wrote last year’s acclaimed best seller The Winner's Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success with coauthors Jeff Brown and Mark Fenske and the upcoming Harvard Medical School’s Guide to Managing Migraines.



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