12 Minutes to a Better Brain

Exercise as “Brain Food” and Its Impact on How We Le

I am sure we are all familiar with the old adages “Drink your milk, it will make your bones strong” and “Eat your spinach, so your muscles will be big like Popeye’s”.

As common and “parental” as these phrases may seem, they are actually backed by science. The calcium our body absorbs when we drink milk is related to bone strength. The vitamins and minerals in spinach (and many other vegetables) will allow our body to function in a better way, giving us more energy to become strong. There is a new idea circulating in research (as well as mainstream media) and the evidence based recommendation is:

“Get heart pumping exercise to strengthen your BRAIN

Brain

 

Not your heart, not your muscles, not your lungs, though those results will also occur and be beneficial. However the focus of the emerging research I am referring to is showing that aerobic or vigorous exercise likely leads to increases in brain function (also known as “cognition”) and improve a person’s memory, attention, and academic performance overall.

How does this work?

First a little background on how fascinating our brains are…

Remember the days of Play Doh? Molding, mashing, creating- keeping us busy for hours? Remember what happened if you left the Play Doh out of its container for too long (ok maybe it was just me who did this as a little kid?). Let me fill you in- it becomes rock solid. Yup, no more forming dogs and houses and “doh” patties. It was literally unable to be shaped. About 100 years ago that is how scientists viewed our brains, once formed, sort of hard and “un-moldable”. However, many brilliant scientists over the years have thankfully discovered that our brains are not “stuck” after a certain age. Our brains are actually constantly adapting and responding, a concept with a fancy name termed “neuroplasticity”. Neuroplasticity simply means that our brains can change and DO change, depending on what kind of “stuff” we put in it. This type of stuff that influences our brain includes:

  • What we listen to: loud music, background noise; research shows that young children and babies who are exposed to great amounts of noise (White noise, background noise, tv produced noise) may have significant negative effects on their attention and learning later in life.
  • What we see: images that we watch on tv and movies, pictures we look at influence how our brains experience real life. It can be a negative experience if we “feed” our brains with violent, angry or traumatic images on a regular basis. On the other hand when we provide our brains with positive, relaxing and funny input, it can boost our body systems as a whole.
  • What we eat: foods high in antioxidants (berries, greens, and yes, DARK CHOCOLATE) protects the insulation cells in our brain keeping it functioning as fast as we need it to
  • What and how we learn: this is one of the hottest topics in research right now, as we are seeing that even well into adulthood (When brains are LESS likely to change) the connections in our brain can be strengthened with learning new tasks (such as a language, or a picking up a new creative hobby such as painting or drawing), reading new material, or doing word and number puzzles.
  • How we rest: The importance of sleep, and good quality sleep (READ: NO TV, MORE THAN 6 HOURS, etc) is essential to maximizing our brain potential
  • HOW WE MOVE: This is the main point of this post and will be the focus from here on out…

 

Scientists have discovered that when we exercise (especially when we perform aerobic exercise; meaning heart pumping, heavy breathing, maybe even break a sweat type exercise) that our brains respond by releasing an amazing chemical called BDNF. The long and very complex name for this chemical is brain derived neurotrophic factor. But actually, I prefer to refer to it as “Big Deal Neuro Food”.

This extremely powerful little chemical leads to BIG changes in our brain circuitry. Think of your brain as a series of wires, all criss- crossed and interconnected like a web.

 

We have billions of these connections and wires in our brains, each with their own unique path to perform one aspect of our daily lives. We have areas of our brain responsible for our emotions, our memory, our judgements and our attention allowing us to perform complex tasks or read or favorite books. There are circuits that allow a sense of joy to come along with the scent of mom’s fresh baked cookies, or the clear memory of your first best friend. Our brain does SO MANY wonderful things for us. It’s only fair we do some good for it!

 

 

Image from www.noigroup.com

Here is a very simple representation of what happens to the pathways in our brain when we exercise:

Infographic Sarah

 

Keep in mind these pathways can be even stronger when you feed it “good food” from all of the other items listed above (what we see, learn, eat, etc). The other great news is that you do not have to LOVE exercise or be a marathon runner to experience these benefits.

A study conducted on middle school aged children showed that just 12 minutes of vigorous exercise had a positive effect on their attention and academic related performance. This is not just for kids!

A study of healthy adults demonstrated significant improvements in tests for attention and memory after participating in aerobic exercise for 30 minutes. This is great news, as this means that it is accessible for everyone (ie. You do not need fancy equipment or a gym) as well as doable even with a busy schedule. There are so many forms of exercise out there to get our hearts pumping; it can be running, but it can also be so many other things, dancing vigorously, swimming, jumping jacks, kickboxing/ punching bag, biking, hiking, jump rope… the list could go on! As a physical therapist working with patients with spinal cord injury I taught my patients who were unable to move their lower body at all how to get a great aerobic workout with their upper bodies. IT IS POSSIBLE & IT IS NECESSARY.

It saddens me when I hear about physical education and sports programs being cut from schools. We are literally working against ourselves and putting kids at a disadvantage by plunking them in a desk to sit all day and requiring them to be attentive and learn. Our bodies were not made to sit all day (for a great read: Sitting is the New Smoking) and it is certainly not an optimal environment for our brains to get stronger.

As now a professor teaching graduate students, one of the things I encourage MOST often and especially around examination time, is regular vigorous exercise, as well as sleep.

Keep this in mind next time you go outside for some fresh air, you’re in gym class, shooting hoops with friends, and just anytime you are taking time for yourself to get that heart going… you are doing more than just increasing your heart health, your mood and overall well- being; you are BOOSTING YOUR BRAIN!

 

But WHY Do I Run?

By Meghan Pearson

But WHY Do I Run?

IMG_0748

(As you can see, I always take it seriously…)

Running has always been a part of my life. I began by running around with my neighbors, then played soccer, then ran cross-country, and now, since I am a glutton for punishment, I run marathons. And before you ask, yes, I actually enjoy doing it. Luckily for me, recent science shows I am actually doing interesting things to my brain while I am running.

For the next month, Inner City Science and Faces of STEM will be reporting about exercise and science and the science of exercise. We are going to look at it from a lot of different perspectives, so stay tuned!

Introduction:

Exercise has long been known to have important health effects. We have all been told that it is an important part of life if we want to live long and prosper (ha!), but the why is a little harder to put into words. I am going to start with some basic studies that looked at what effect exercise had on the aging mind.

As we age, our bodies start to fail on us. It’s a slow process, but we have all probably seen or felt it. Maybe the metabolism slows, maybe the brain can’t remember things, or maybe there is the sudden urge to yell at kids to get off the lawn. The last one is a silly example, but you get the idea. Aging stinks. But research is actually starting to pour in that by exercising, we can slow (and sometimes reverse) some of the effects on aging.

Methods and Materials:

As stated above, there is much research in this topic; however, it should be noted as human testing is still very frowned on, most of these studies are done on mice and rats. Why is this still relative? Well, it turns out we are pretty similar to rats and mice (evolution is cool!)

Many scientists are interested in how to best preserve their brain power. In one such study, they began by comparing the learning abilities and new nerve cell growth of mice from four different groups: sedentary young mice, sedentary old mice, exercising young mice, and exercising old mice. They provided the third and fourth groups (the exercisers) with a wheel and monitored their use.

Results:

This is where it gets cool. They then compared how the mice performed on different a specific maze learning test, and it turns out, the mice that exercised did better! But it gets even better. While there was a difference in the performance between the young and old mice, the old mice performed outperformed their sedentary old mice peers, and in some regards, performed similarly to the young mice of the sedentary group. The mice were able to learn more effectively when they exercised. In fact, when the researchers looked at the brains of the mice, they found that the old mice that exercised had increased their neurogenesis. This is the scientific word for they were once again creating new dendrites: nerve cells! The old mice were not able to make as many new cells as their young peers, but the old mice that exercised showed more new growth than the sedentary old mice. They were reversing some of the effects of aging. It should also be noted that the old mice were all kept sedentary until they were 19 months old (remember, the life span of mice is only about two years…). These researchers believe that beginning to exercise sooner may have lessened the effects of aging even more.

Discussion:

So what does this mean for us? Well, it is pretty good motivation to get out the door and go exercise, but it also means that there are some pretty good indicators that exercising could help us feel young for longer. Human application of these studies is never perfect, but it is usually close. The sooner a person starts exercising, the sooner they can begin to have these benefits. So go outside, go to the park, chase your kids around. Give your brain a few extra dendrites so you can feel better for longer!

If you would like to read one of the papers about this topic, I encourage you to read Exercise Enhances Learning and Hippocampal Neurogensis in Aged Mice by Henriette van Praag et al.