Exercise can generate new brain cells

Who said you can’t grow new brain cells?

image of brain cells

Can exercise really help us grow new brain cells?

Can exercise really help you grow new brain cells? We all know the benefits of exercise – the main one being that it keeps you physically fit – but a growing body of research is backing up what’s long been suspected – that it’s good for the brain too.

It might even slow the advance of Alzheimer’s (or possibly prevent it), and there’s growing evidence that it’s a stimulant to the memory. Two very important benefits of exercise, without doubt.

The hippocampus plays a major role in memory consolidation

A study into the benefits of exercise at Cambridge University in 2010 found that running spurred the brain to grow new brain cells in the hippocampus, a brain region closely connected with memory function. Growing brain cells in the hippocampus is definitely good news, since it indicates that the memory can be stimulated by workout routines, or at least gentle exercise.

In the study, a group of mice were rewarded with sugar if they chose the right direction at a particular point, and they were later tested to see if they remembered which way to choose. One part of the group had been given access to exercise wheels in the meantime, and they outperformed their ‘lazier’ compatriots by nearly fifty percent. Tissue samples later revealed that they had hundreds of thousands of new neurons (brain cells).

The benefits of exercise

This isn’t an isolated study. Many similar studies have demonstrated that the benefits of exercise include that it does in fact promote the growth of new brain cells. One, published in 2011 by Dr. Kirk I. Erickson, revealed that exercise actually grew the hippocampus of adult participants by two percent, a modest amount you might think, but it would translate to reversing brain cell loss by one to two years, effectively.

A 2007 study found that there was a measurable improvement in participants’ blood flow to a memory-related area of the brain, as well as increased scores on memory tests after a workout program that spanned three months. Results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

So … do we have to do vigorous workout routines?

older people walking in a park

You don’t need to pump iron to get the benefits of exercise, just a brisk walk will do the trick.

Does this mean that we all have to undertake rigorous, long term workout routines to ensure our mental wellbeing? Thankfully, the answer is no! Arthur Kramer, a Beckman Institute researcher, assigned subjects a six-month-long exercise program that consisted of nothing more strenuous than walking. It began with slow, relaxed strolling and progressed gradually to more vigorous walking lasting up to 45 minutes at a time, and the walking became the participants’ daily workout routines.

In memory tests six months after the study, participants performed up to eleven percent better than before, while a control group actually showed a slight decrease in performance. Positive changes in the improved group were also noted in regions of the brain associated with spatial attention.

It’s now widely accepted that exercise is a stimulant to the brain, and can improve memory, and researchers are now concentrating their efforts on finding out how workout routines can help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, figures for Alzheimer’s are on the increase year on year, and more research is needed to find the cause and, hopefully, a cure. While researchers are satisfied that exercise is good for the brain as well as the body, they’re still unsure why some people benefit more from exercise than others. Neither are they exactly sure what are the best workout routines to undertake.

A little exercise is a good thing

I think it’s safe to assume that any exercise is better than none, and maybe the best exercise we can undertake is a little mental exercise … readjusting our conception of exercise and seeing it in a more favourable light. Instead of seeing exercise as a necessary evil at best, why not look on it as a gift. To the many people who are unable to exercise for one reason or another, the thought of being able to enjoy a brisk walk or a few minutes of gentle calisthenics is no more than a wistful dream, while most of us can live that dream, very easily.

Let’s not allow the opportunity to seize the benefits of exercise pass us by. Advancing age is only likely to reduce the opportunity to exercise. A few minutes walking or engaging in some light workout routines while you still can could mean the difference between health and dependency.

What would your choice be?


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