Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Your Brain on Excercise

Welcome back to yet another enthralling addition to my blog!  We all know that exercise is good for the body.  However, recent research has shown that  exercise is good for the brain too (surprise, surprise).  But, maybe not in the way you're thinking.  I am not talking about that temporary and somewhat fleeting runner's high you get after a tough workout.  Instead, I am referring to recent research which has proven exercise to have a much more profound impact on the brain- an effect that results in long lasting and extremely positive changes in brain function. This is exactly what we will be exploring with today's article.

Just to forewarn you, we will have a little change of pace with this post as I was fortunate enough to interview Jeremy Walsh on the subject matter.  I say fortunate for two reasons: (1) Jeremy is conducting novel research in the field, and thus has a great understanding of the topic and (2) it saves me from having to read up prior to writing an article.  Maybe I should do more interviews!

In any case, here is a brief background on Jeremy before we get into the interview:

Jeremy Walsh
  • Completed a Hon. BA in Kinesiology at WLU (Psychology minor)
  • Thesis: "The Influences of pulsed magnetic fields on indices of muscle damage and repair"
  • Currently studying in the Human Vascular Control Lab at Queen's University
  • Ontario Graduate Scholarship recipient 
Question #1: Thanks for taking the time to do this Jeremy.  So you are currently studying the connection between brain physiology and exercise.  How, exactly, has exercise been shown to influence our brains?

"In a nutshell, as we age, our brains deteriorate in a predictable fashion.  The size of our brains shrink, there is a decrease in blood flow to the brain, and functions such as memory and processing speed decline.  Fortunately,  exercise has the power to positively change blood flow, structure (size) and the function of the adult brain at any age!  This is really exciting stuff because the brain used to be regarded as a rigid structure, unable to change. Only within the last 15 years have people really started paying attention to the fact that the brain is 'plastic' or able to change.
So how does it do this? 

1) Exercise increases brain blood flow. This provides an increase in the delivery of oxygen and nutrients which are vital for maintaining healthy brain cells.  With prolonged, regular exercise, new blood vessels are formed in the brain which elevates brain blood flow... even at rest; this provides a perfect environment for cells to thrive and grow. 

2) Exercise increases the release of important hormones and growth factors.  Specifically, exercise increases Insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).  These growth factors work together to improve learning and memory, increase the connections between neurons (faster processing = faster thinking), and actually stimulate the growth of new neurons (vital for storing new memory and improving capacity to do work)." 

Question 2: So, what type of practical applications are we looking at here?  Is the impact of exercise significant enough to help the average person maintain their cognitive function longer in life?  Is there the potential to help with neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's? 

"There is definitely a huge potential for this to be applied to both healthy aging (maintenance of cognitive function) as well as preventing the onset of neurological disorders.  Studies have found that exercise training at any stage of neurological disease  progression (ex. early or middle stages of dementia) can slow and in some cases stop, the progression of the disease.

For the average person, participation in regular physical activity extends their cognitive function by years.  Exercise (with regards to brain function) is not like a drug where once you stop taking it, the effects wear off.  Regular exercise has a profound impact on the brain years removed from training.

Practical application is simple and clear - benefits can be garnered by staying active and finding ways to keep moving... the more active you are, the more your brain will benefit."

Question 3:
Has the research shown what type of exercise is best?  Is it long bouts of cardio?  Interval training?  Resistance training?

"The research on exercise type is starting to expand.  For the most part, aerobic training has been at the forefront of this research, mainly because it is easy to measure the amount of work being done and it is easy for an individual to adhere to the training.  Resistance training, however, has also been shown to improve cognitive function and studies show that it has a GREATER impact on the brain than aerobic training.  I would speculate that this is because of the increases in growth hormones and the changes in body composition associated with resistance training.  What I find to be really cool is that aerobic training and resistance training COMBINED has an even GREATER effect on cognitive function than do either training modality alone.

I have not read any studies that directly measured brain function with interval training, however, interval training has a positive effect on the release of growth hormones (IGF-1) and this is directly linked to brain function.  I hypothesize that interval training (provided it's a sufficient stimulus) would have a positive effect on brain function. 

At the end of the day, exercise, regardless of type, will improve brain function.  The take home message remains - stay active, keep moving, and find something that YOU enjoy because motivation and enjoyment are key to positive changes in the brain."

Question 4: How about for the recovery from traumatic brain injuries, such as a concussion?  Or, recovery from a stroke?  Would exercise help?   

"Exercise is quickly being recognized as a key component to recovery from various traumatic brain injuries.  Animal studies have shown that exercise BEFORE a stroke helps protect the brain from potential damage during a stroke.  Exercise AFTER a stroke is key to successful rehabilitation.  It all comes back to the increase in blood flow and growth factors... these events act as 'miracle grow' for the brain. 
Regarding concussions, active (exercise) rehab is an integral part of post-concussion recovery; however, exercise should only begin once the person is free of their symptoms. The response to exercise will be completely based on the individual. Improving brain blood flow and increasing growth factors will aid in the healing of the injured tissue."  

Question #5: So what is your current research geared toward?

"I cannot fully disclose this part as I am still in the process of writing my proposal, however, we will be examining how exercise in combination with a mental task (cognitive training) will work to enhance brain function beyond that of exercise or cognitive training alone."

So, there you have it, yet another reason to exercise!  Thanks to Jeremy for taking the time to answer my questions.  If there is anything you are curious about, feel free to e-mail me and I will direct any questions toward Jeremy.

Next week we will be looking at an (apparently) more efficient way to run: The Pose Method.

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