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This Is Your Brain... On Exercise

Hard workouts can improve mood, improve attention — and even build more gray matter.

Mike Carlson

Science has spoken: It’s time to retire the “brains vs. brawn” trope. The stereotypical weakling genius and the ditzy gym bunny are as old and tired as blond jokes. And, according to recent research, they make even less sense.

A mountain of scientific findings has provided us with a new understanding of the human experience. Instead of acting as separate entities, or even working in opposition, the brain and the body are constantly communicating with and even nourishing each other. Exercise induces a cascade of benevolent changes within the brain, and when brains experience exercise on a regular basis over the years, they tend to age better.

The Game of Concentration

“Some evidence shows that people who have been physically active all their adult lives have less chance of developing depression, anxiety disorders or cognitive problems,” says J. Carson Smith, Ph.D., associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland and the director of the Exercise for Brain Health Lab. Regular exercise can improve mood, increase resistance to stress and stave off age-related decline. And the improvements are not just related to transient surges in brain chemicals and hormones: Scientists have found that regular workouts actually build new supportive structures within the brain.

“There are many possibilities for how exercise may protect the brain from age-related disease,” Smith says. “What is so elegant about it and what makes it so difficult to study is that it affects everything all at once.”

The benefits that a hard workout imparts on your heart and your muscles are just as good for your brain, and for many of the same reasons. For instance, exercise helps control blood glucose and improve insulin sensitivity — two concepts familiar to fit-minded people because managing blood sugar leads to a leaner physique. But a study published last year in the journal Diabetologia found that subjects with chronic high blood sugar experienced cognitive decline at a faster rate than those with lower blood sugar. In other words, the higher the blood sugar, the faster the cognitive decline.

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Spring 2019

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