An unexpected brain boost

It’s no secret that movement is great medicine. It’s a smart way to combat and prevent most of what ails us. But, as Angela LaSalle, MD, Parkview Physicians Group – Integrative Medicine, points out, it’s also powerful for our brain function.

We understand the calorie burning effect of exercise, but did you know that regular exercise is good for your brain? A 2008 study of factors affecting cognition in the elderly showed that regular exercise was a factor in the prevention of dementia and decline of neurological function. This may be in part due to the release of growth factors, decrease in inflammation and increased release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and glutamate.

Exercise also releases endorphins which act as natural antidepressants for the body. Studies have shown that both serotonin and endorphins are increased by exercise and may be maintained at higher levels for several days. Milder cases of depression can respond well to regular exercise leading to increased self esteem and a decrease in stress and anxiety.

John J. Ratey, MD, clinical associate professor of Psychiatry at Harvard, recently wrote about exercise's effects on the brain in his book "Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain". According to his writings, exercise helps to increase our stress tolerance, improves learning, combats symptoms of ADHD and improves the brain's repair mechanisms by elevating a chemical called brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). By elevating the neurotransmitters and neurologic growth factors, the connections between the neurons are improved, promoting a quality of brain function known as synaptic plasticity.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco monitored 6,000 women's exercise habits and cognitive function over an 8 year period. They found that those in the most active group had the best cognitive function. Even small increases in exercise showed benefit. For every extra mile walked per week, the team noticed a 13 percent less chance of cognitive decline. There are numerous studies linking improved brain function with exercise. With that being said, the only decision left to make is when to get moving.

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