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May 29, 2012 > Exercise... to a Better Brain

Exercise... to a Better Brain

By Sandra Hallgren

Want to get smarter? Go for a walk or a swim. For more than a decade scientists have studied the beneficial relationship between exercise and brainpower and have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enjoys enhanced cognitive flexibility. Exercise, it seems, does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.

It has long been known that "enriched" environments - filled with toys and engaging, novel tasks - lead to improvements in the brainpower of lab animals. In most instances this includes a running wheel, because mice and rats generally enjoy running. Until recently, there was little research done on the effects of running versus engaging the mind in ways that don't increase the heart rate.

So, last year a team of researchers set four groups of mice into four distinct living arrangements. All the animals completed a series of cognitive tests at the start of the study and were injected with a substance to track changes in their brain structures. Then they ran, played or just lolled about in their cages for several months. Afterward, the mice were put through the same cognitive tests and had their brain tissue examined. It turned out that the toys and play, no matter how stimulating, had not improved the animals' brains.

Only one thing made a difference... a running wheel.

Animals that exercised, whether or not they had any other enrichments in their cages, had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests.

Exercise seems to slow or reverse the brain's physical decline, much as it does with muscles. Mice and rats that ran for a few weeks generally had about twice as many new neurons in their hippocampi as sedentary animals. Their brains, like other muscles, were bulking up. Exercise also seemed to make their neurons nimble.

Whatever the activity, research shows that exercise needn't be exhausting to be effective for the brain. When a group of 120 older men and women were assigned to walking for a study, they wound up with larger hippocampi after a year and performed better on cognitive tests.

So the message is clear: to get smarter... get moving!

If you're a senior in the Tri-City area of Fremont, Newark and Union City and are interested in improving your balance and preventing falls, call Sandy at LIFE ElderCare 574-2087 to enroll in the free Fall Prevention program.

P.S. LIFE ElderCare's in-home exercise program is offered at no cost to home-bound seniors age 60 and older. In addition, you'll receive a free home safety assessment, minor home modifications and a comprehensive medication review. These combined measures may help decrease your possibility of a bad fall. If you are concerned about falling, doing fall prevention exercises can make all the difference!

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