Just 12 Weeks of Aerobic Exercise Can Benefit Your Brain

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • You keep hearing exercise is good for your body and now for your brain. But how quickly can the benefits of exercise show up in brain function?

    It turns out that you don’t need much for your brain to begin to reap the awards. In a recent study, researchers out of the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Brain Health involved a group of 37 adults between the ages of 57 and 75. Members of this group, all of whom were cognitively healthy but sedentary, were assigned to one of two subgroups. One subgroup was assigned to a supervised aerobic exercise program that involved riding a stationary bicycle or walking on a treadmill for one hour on three days each week over a 12-week period. The other subgroup did not have this regimen.

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    The researchers assessed the participants’ memory, resting brain blood flow and cardiovascular fitness levels at the start of the study, at the half-way mark and at the end of the study. By the halfway point, the researchers found that the participants in the exercise group had more blood flow to the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate both while active and when resting. Over the course of the study, these participants’ memory improved over the course of the study.

    “I think that’s really the surprise,” says lead author Sandra B. Chapman about the 12-week period when exercise improves cognitive health. “You are going to get a gain within in a very short period of time in the area you want to improve, not to mention less depression, better sleep and all the other benefits that come from exercise.”

    So that’s wonderful news! And it’s a good reason to keep doing exercise – specifically aerobic exercise.  Here’s why - a study that was published in 2011 found that aerobic exercise reverses the shrinkage in the hippocampus region of the brain and improves memory. In that study, 120 sedentary people between the ages of 55 and 80 years of age were involved. All of the participants were sedentary, having participated in less than one 30-minute session of physical activity a week.

    Researchers randomly assigned the participants to one of two groups. One group participated in a supervised aerobic exercise program that involved walking around a track for 40 minutes a day on three days each week. The second group participated in a supervised program of yoga and toning with resistance bands.

    The participants were asked to give blood samples, took memory tests and also had MRI brain scans at the beginning of the study, at the six-month mark and again at the study’s end one year later.  The researchers found that the brain scans at the one-year mark showed that the walkers ‘ hippocampus had increased in size by about two percent. This expansion of the brain basically reversed any age-related brain loss by one to two years. In comparison, the MRI revealed that the brains in the participants in the stretching/yoga group shrunk by 1.4 percent.

    The exercise group also performed better on a memory test. The blood test also indicated that this group had higher levels of BDNF, which is a protein that’s needed for learning and memory.

  • Three hours a week isn’t much of a burden on your schedule. Give up watching one TV drama and, instead, put on your tennis shoes and head outdoors. Opt to go to the gym two additional times a week and ride the stationary bike during your lunch hour instead of grabbing a burger and fries. Those small changes will lead to important changes in your brain – and protection for your memory.

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    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Agnvall, E. (2013). Exercise boosts memory in adults over 50. AARP Blog.

    Chapman, S.B., et al. (2013). Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

    Simon, N. (2011). Keep your memory strong by walking. AARP Bulletin.

Published On: November 15, 2013