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The science behind exercising for your brain’s youth
A study published in Science last month (July 2020) looked at the benefits of exercise on the brain by conducting an experiment on mice.
They had young mice and elderly mice run for six weeks, then took blood from both of these groups and gave transfusions to elderly mice which had not been exercising.
After the blood transfusions, the elderly mice performed better on cognitive tests than the control mice – of the same, advanced age. It made no difference whether the blood transfusions had come from young mice or older mice – it was the activity level of the blood-donating mice which made the difference.
The elderly mice which received transfusions also showed an increase in new neurons being created in the memory centres of their brains.
What was in the blood which made the difference?
The scientists separated the blood and established the different proteins found in the blood of the exercising mice. These proteins were not found in the blood of the inactive mice.
The significant enzyme is called glycosylphosphatidylinositol (GPI)-specific phospholipase D1 (Gpld1) which comes from the liver. This enzyme increased after exercise and matched with the improved cognitive function of the elderly mice.
This does open the door to perhaps a Gpld1 supplement being developed down the track but, as with all supplements, it would never replace the real thing – the real thing being exercise.
Other ways exercise helps your brain: dementia prevention
Exercise can also play a role in helping prevent or lessen the impact of depression and dementia.
According to Dementia Australia, “all exercise is worth doing”.
“Why this is so is still being studied, but it is thought that exercise may improve blood flow to the brain, reduce cardiovascular risk factors and possibly stimulate nerve cell growth and survival,” their fact sheet reports.
Regular aerobic exercise can be as simple as walking for 30 minutes – and at the time of writing exercise of this nature is allowed in even Australia’s strictest lockdown.
Regular exercise may improve blood flow to the brain and reduce cardiovascular risk factors
Other ways exercise helps your brain: supporting positive mental health
Meanwhile, the Australian Government’s Health Direct website says regular exercise is proven to help support good mental health and brain function.
In terms of mental health, pretty much all humans thrive with a routine, and making exercise and physical activity part of that routine helps. When you exercise, the brain releases chemicals including endorphins and serotonin to naturally improve your mood. Plus, the very act of choosing to exercise for yourself, making a good and healthy choice for yourself can be a positive. Plus, when exercise takes you out into the world, only when you are fit and well, following current government advice, socially-distancing and maintaining good hygiene, it can help reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Remember, never go out to exercise if you have been instructed to self-isolate or are awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test.
Meanwhile, Health Direct also says that regular exercise can “can reduce your stress and symptoms of mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, and help with recovery from mental health issues”.
“It can also improve your sleep, which is important in many different ways.”
Exercise is also great for mental health. The release of endorphins and serotonin during exercise makes you feel good and can be an awesome mood booster.
Other ways exercise supports your brain: clear thinking and better memory
When it comes to the mind itself, the physical act of exercising pumps blood to the brain, which can help with clearing thinking. Plus, if you’re ever stuck on a problem – be it with work or your personal life, have you ever noticed how a run or a gym session can help you come to some new solutions? It’s something to do with allowing the subconscious mind to take over while you focus on something physical.
Anyway, Health Direct reports that exercise “increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory”.
It also increases the connections between the nerve cells in the brain. This improves your memory and helps protect your brain against injury and disease.
Exercise alone isn’t a cure for all ailments
This isn’t to say that exercise is a cure-all and replaces the other things you can do to support brain health, including a balanced, healthy diet, continuing to take prescribed medications as directed by your doctor and talk therapy with a trained psychologist.
Nor should you exercise to extremes, continue to exercise if you are injured or have been advised not to train.
This is just to say that exercise has been shown to help alongside a healthy, balanced lifestyle.
And, of course, if you have concerns about your cognitive function, mental health or risks of dementia, or you have concerns about a family member or friend, please seek professional advice. This could be from your doctor, health care provider or, if you have immediate concerns about your mental health, reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 14. We’ve mentioned Lifeline before because we understand it can take the same suggestion a number of times before people feel comfortable to make that call. If that’s you, or someone you know, we see you.
If you ever need someone to talk to or are feeling overwhelmed, take the first step and reach out to a friend of a trained professional.
Your brain motivates your workout in more ways than one
So, there you have it – whether you’re working out to make your brain younger, prevent dementia, support positive mental health, all of the physical benefits… or all of the above, there’s no better time to go and do your workout.
As the saying goes, the only workout you regret is the one you didn’t do!
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Dementia.org.au. 2015. Physical Exercise And Dementia. [online] Available at: Physical Exercise English (pdf).
Healthdirect.gov.au. 2019. Exercise And Mental Health. [online] Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/exercise-and-mental-health.
Horowitz, A., et. al., 2020. Blood Factors Transfer Beneficial Effects Of Exercise On Neurogenesis And Cognition To The Aged Brain. [online] Science. Available at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6500/167.