Exercise Your Brain

A couple months ago we talked about how exercise can help reduce your risk for cancer, but what about your brain? A wealth of information supports the idea that physical activity is good for the brain, but exactly how remains somewhat of a mystery.

A new study, published this month in the journal eLIFE, suggests that strenuous exercise beneficially changes how certain genes work inside a mouse’s brain. Though the study was conducted with mice, and not people, there are encouraging signs that we’re also seeing similar benefits!

Scientists have known for years that the brains of both animals and people who regularly exercise are different than the brains of those who are sedentary. For instance, experiments in animals show that exercise induces the creation of new cells in the hippocampus, a part of the brain essential for memory and learning.

Researchers believe that exercise helps in part by increasing the body’s production of a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (B.D.N.F.), a protein sometimes referred to as “Miracle-Gro” for the brain. B.D.N.F. helps neurons grow and strengthens the synapses that connect them, allowing for better brain function.

To complete the eLife study, researchers used a group of healthy mice to microscopically examine and reverse engineer the steps that lead to a surge in B.D.N.F. after exercise. Half of the mice were put into cages that contained running wheels, while the others were not. Over the course of a month, those living with wheels ran often, generally covering several miles a day, while the others remained sedentary. B.D.N.F. levels were much higher in the brains of the runners and the particular gene known to create B.D.N.F was more active among the mice that exercised than those that did not.

Whether the same mechanisms that occur in mice occur in our own brains when we exercise is still unknown. Generally, however, this process requires exerting yourself for an hour or more. If the thought of an hour or more of exercise each day seems daunting, make an appointment at your local PTC clinic going online to ptcentral.org. If you’re ready to begin an exercise routine, one of our expert physical therapists can help ensure your body is strong enough to take on physical activity and help you come up with a plan to get moving!

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