Exercise is important in keeping your heart and lungs healthy. We know for decades that the effort required in exercise allows life-giving oxygen to travel quicker and in greater amounts to all the tissues of the body – allowing the cells in them to grow and divide. A noticeable exception to this rule is the brain.
Neurons are different
Nerve cells or neurons are notoriously bad at dividing. Rather than divide, a neuron survives by making up to 10,000 connections to neighbouring neurons – and this is the key to how we learn and recall as memories are created and strengthened. This compromise works well for the first four decades of life however by your 50’s a gradual loss of neurons and their connections starts to take it toll resulting in a noticeable reduction in cognition as we find it harder to remember, especially recent events.
An unexpected finding
Recent scientific findings from Columbia University show that exercise is important in helping to reverse this age-related loss of neurons. In this study in a small group of middle-aged people, exercising just an hour a day, four times a week, for three months triggers the growth of new neurons – a feat which has previously proved almost impossible for neuroscientists to achieve using drugs. Neuroscientists are still working out the possible reasons why simple exercise is so powerful at triggering the birth of neurons but a clue may be that the brain is very well supplied by blood vessels needed to deliver the food and oxygen to help make and maintain the trillions of synapses in the brain. In fact the brain is one of the most oxygen-sensitive organs of the body. It receives 20% of the cardiac output and accounts for about 25% of overall resting oxygen consumption. In addition, the brain as a highly vascular organ is very sensitive to changes in blood perfusion. It seems the extra increase in blood perfusion and life-giving oxygen associated with exercise may invigorate the brain to such a degree that it starts to actually grow new neurons again.
Exercise is as important as drugs
The finding that exercise triggers the brain to grow new nerve cells is a truly stunning discovery that will have implications for public healthcare policies for an increasingly ageing population. In addition, new treatments for brain illness such as Alzheimer’s disease and head injury may involve a combination of different therapies such as medication, psychological therapies, social support, self-help techniques and now, most importantly exercise. This combined approach will treat the person as a whole, and marks the beginning of the journey back to wellness and a normal life.
So the message is simple –if you want to stay smart just get out there and exercise.