Mind and Body: Surprising Benefits of Aerobic Exercise for Your Brain

Mind and Body: Surprising Benefits of Aerobic Exercise for Your Brain

As we know, exercise benefits us in many ways. Cardiovascular, mental, and joint health, to name a few, can be improved with regular fitness at all ages. For the past decade, neuroscientists have been giving us another item to add to that list: the brain. Specifically, aerobic exercise seems to benefit the hippocampus, an important structure for learning and memory in humans.

In a 2011 study conducted at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and the University of Pittsburgh, 120 seniors without dementia were placed in two groups. Sixty participants completed 40 minutes of stretching, three times a week, and the other half completed moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for 40 minutes, three times a week. Upon completion of the year-long study, MRIs of the participants’ brains from the stretching group showed a decline of hippocampal volume that is expected with normal aging (around 1.4% loss). Surprisingly, the group of participants that exercised aerobically for 40 minutes, three times a week, not only showed no decay, but their hippocampi increased in volume by about 2%.

Amazing, right? But what do these results mean for our brains? Since the study’s publication, neuroscientists have continued to learn more about exercise’s influence on brain activity. Wendy Suzuki, of New York University, attributes exercise to increased creativity and her ability to concentrate. Geriatricians recognize the importance of the hippocampus in our formation of episodic memory, and spatial navigation, two key features that suffer with the development of age-related dementia.

Exactly how aerobic exercise generates hippocampal growth has yet to be clearly understood, but evidence certainly points to its benefits at many stages of life.

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So, the next time you lace up your shoes and head out to reach your stepping goal, your brain will thank you!
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