Working out your brain

Qian Qian Rachel Liu
23 January 2012

When summer hits, it seems the only thing being talked about is the pursuit of a toned beach body. If you find yourself lacking in motivation, here's a bit of an incentive to get moving: research suggests exercise not only makes you look good, it also enhances your brain function and makes you smarter!

Neurons, or the cells that transmit information within your nervous system to help control various body functions and behaviours, are created before birth. During gestation and infancy, billions of these cells send out branches, called neuronal processes, which intertwine into the vast networks that make up your nervous system. Throughout life, your neuronal networks reorganize and rebuild themselves in response to new information and experiences. This process is believed by scientists to be learning and memory at the cellular level.

Did You Know?
Neuronal processes include axons, which send out information, and dendrites, which receive information.

You might have heard of the term “mind-body connection”. It comes from the fact that neurons not only contact other neurons, they also connect with your muscles. Neuroscientists from the University of Cambridge in the UK have been working to study the effects of aerobic exercises. Using mice, they showed that running regularly for even a short period of time stimulates new cells to grown in the part of the brain involved in memory and recall. The process of neuronal regeneration is called neurogenesis.

Did You Know?
Neurons, once matured, cannot divide again. This is why it is extremely hard for patients to recover from spinal cord injuries and brain damage (such as after stroke), which are often permanent.

Although much human research has focused on dementia in seniors, showing that there is a 30 to 40 per cent lower risk of dementia in healthy people that exercise regularly, recent studies show that kids and young adults can also benefit mentally from exercise. A large new study found that teenage males in the best cardiovascular shape did better on different cognitive tests compared to less fit teens. Furthermore, teens that improved their fitness levels between the ages of 15 and 18 achieved higher test scores than those who decreased their fitness during that time. Teens reported higher efficiency while studying for exams after adopting a regular exercise routine.

Did You Know?
It is estimated about 24 million people around the world are living with some form of dementia. The most common form is Alzheimer's disease, which is well known for age-related memory loss.

John J. Ratey, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said “Exercise ... affects mood, vitality, alertness, and feelings of well-being.” So, if you think you are getting smarter by sitting in front of your TV with your hands glued to your PS3 controllers, think again! Shoot some hoops, go for a run... your brain will thank you for it!

Learn more!

Aerobic exercise grows brain cells

Train your brain with exercise

Creer DJ, Romberg C, Saksida LM, van PraagH, Bussey TJ (2010) Running enhances spatial pattern separation in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 107:2367-2372.

Lojovich JM (2010) The relationship betweenaerobic exercise and cognition: is movement medicinal? J Head Trauma Rehabil. 25:184-192

Radak Z, Hart N, Sarga L, Koltai E, AtalayM, Ohno H, Boldogh I (2010) Exercise plays a preventive role againstAlzheimer's disease. J Alzheimers Dis. 20:777-783

Deslandes A, Moraes H, Ferreira C, Veiga H,Silveira H, Mouta R, Pompeu FA, Coutinho ES, Laks J (2009) Exercise and mental health: many reasons tomove. Neuropsychobiology. 59:191-198.

Article first published on July 19, 2010.

Qian Qian Rachel Liu

I am a fourth year student in the Medical Laboratory Sciences Program at the University of British Columbia. Currently, I am conducting my own research project at the Department of Neuroscience at UBC.  I was born in China and have lived in Vancouver for 9 years. I am a big movie buff and enjoy spending time with my friends!

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