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For Your Patients – Why Daily Movement Improves Your Brain Health, Part 1: Gene Activation and More

Sep 20, 2014

For Your Patients: Why Daily Movement Improves Your Brain Health, Part 1: Gene Activation and More

by Dr. Sheri Colberg, Ph.D., FACSM
When it comes to brain health, nothing beats physical activity and all types of daily movement for having a powerful effect. Having a healthy brain is essential to living a long life well, which should be the goal for everyone, not just people with diabetes. Here are some reasons why your brain needs for you to be active.

Exercise Has Instantaneous Effects on Your DNA

How you move your body not only has a dramatic effect on what goes on inside each one of your cells, but also turns on and off specific genes that affect your body weight and food cravings. Even engaging in short bouts of physical activity has the ability to instantly affect millions of cell functions, as well as turn on over 450 genes and turn off another 150, affecting how your body stores fat, creates muscle, and uses carbohydrates. During a study involving 14 sedentary men and women, researchers examined their gene activation before and after they spent only 20 minutes on an exercise machine. This short bout of physical activity led to significant changes in some genes within the muscle cells, including several involved in fat metabolism.

Exercisers Have Healthier and Smarter Brains

Your ability to think and your intellect may be improved by physical activity. Regular exercisers exhibit better function on cognitive tasks than non-exercisers. Older adults who engage in fitness training increase their cognitive ability, even if they have some level of dementia or impairment. Regular training also increases brain volume, principally in frontal and temporal areas of the brain involved in executive (motor) control and memory processes where the loss of gray matter (neurons) is slowed down by exercise. Gray matter makes up the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that allows for processing of information. The denser the gray matter is in a particular region of the brain, the more intelligence or skill you are likely to have.

While aerobic exercise like walking helps prevents brain aging, engaging in resistance training and other more anaerobic pursuits actually stimulates the creation of new brain cells in the dentate gyrus, part of the hippocampus region of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Although it was once believed that the brain stops growing by adulthood, we now know that new neurons continue to be generated in the hippocampus throughout our lives. Exercise can help stimulate the growth of such cells. Conversely, mental stress can to destroy these newly developed nerve cells, making it harder to retain new information or memories. The stress-reducing brain endorphins that get released by vigorous exercise can help protect your brain by stimulating this nerve formation.

Exercise Keeps Your Brain Young

While exercise has long been known to improve learning and prevent dementia, in response to the physical demands of exercise, your brain may produce new mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of the cells that supply energy to brain cells. In a study done by researchers in South Carolina, mice that ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day experienced boosts in their mitochondrial DNA in their brain cells, showing that they were creating more mitochondria in response to the activity. The increased energy supply allowed their brain to work faster and more efficiently. While past research showed that exercise encourages the growth of new neurons in certain regions of the brain, these findings were spread throughout, leading to improvements in more general brain functions like mood regulation and dementia prevention.

With aging, the cells throughout the body gradually lose their ability to adapt to stress. Older cells have a lower threshold for combating the molecular stresses of free radicals, excessive energy demands, and overexcitability. In the brain, when neurons get worn down from cellular stress and synapses erode, which eventually severs the connections. Formation of new nerve cells slows down dramatically with aging, and starting at about age 40, we all begin losing about five percent of our overall brain volume per decade until the age of 70, when losses can be accelerated by any number of conditions. However, staying active and involved can slow the degeneration. What’s more, exercise slows down the natural decline of the stress threshold and helps maintain blood flow and blood supply to the brain, all while creating its own antioxidant systems to combat inflammation and free radicals.

My next column (Part 2) will cover changes in brain hormones that result from physical activity. They’re all good!

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