Physical Exercise Benefits All Brains (Including Those in Unborn Babies, Elders)
More and more, researchers are determining that exercise is not only good for the heart, lungs and muscles, but also good for strengthening that elusive organ, the brain. It doesn’t matter if you’re young, middle-age, old – breaking a sweat is great for your brain. And two new studies highlight this point.
The first is a new study out of Canada that looked at the effect exercise had on pregnant women and their unborn babies. The researchers involved women who were in their first trimester of pregnancy. Some of the women were assigned to an active group, which was asked to take part in at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise using at least 55 percent of their maximum aerobic capacity at least three times weekly. This group was assigned to exercise during their second and third trimesters. In contract, the women in the other group were encouraged to remain sedentary through their pregnancy. The researchers found that the women in the sedentary group did an average of 12 minutes of moderate exercise weekly during the study while the pregnant women who were assigned to the active group exercised on average 117 minutes weekly.
After birth, the babies’ brains were tested using specialized caps consisting of 124 soft electrodes that detected the brain’s electrical activity before the babies went to sleep. Once the infants were asleep, the scientists used an EEG to measure the response of the infants’ brains to a series of sounds, some of which were new and some of which were familiar. The researchers found that the babies whose mothers were physically active actually had more mature brains. The researchers also will be evaluating the babies’ cognitive development, motor development and language development and plan to follow the babies for at least a year in order to analyze whether the benefits of their mother’s exercising while pregnant lasts for a long time.
On the other end of the spectrum, new research out of the University of Texas at Dallas’ Center for Brain Health looked at the effect of exercise on 37 middle-age adults between the ages of 57 and 75. These adults were all sedentary and were assigned at the start of the study to two groups. One group remained sedentary, while the other group took part in a supervised aerobic exercise program (either riding a stationary bike or walking on a treadmill) for 60 minutes three days weekly. This exercise program lasted for 12 weeks.
The participants’ memory, resting brain blood flow and cardiovascular fitness were measured at the study’s start as well as at the six-week point. These indicators also were assessed at the end of the study. The he researchers found that the exercise group had greater blood flow to the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate (which are responsible for memory) by the six-week mark. This blood flow was seen in this active group’s brains both while they were active as well as when they were resting. Furthermore, these participants’ memories were found to have improved at the 12-week mark.
I think both of these studies are intriguing because they highlight the importance of exercise throughout the span of life. Yes, more research needs to be done, but I think these studies provide some good evidence of the power of exercise. Just getting into a regular walking routine of one hour a day on three days a week can quickly cause the benefits to add up. And just think how much your brain (and your baby’s brain, if you’re a pregnant woman) will thank you if you add additional exercise into your schedule each week. It’s a smart move to make!
Primary Sources for This Sharepost:
Chapman, S. B., et al. (2013). Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
Kaplan, K. (2013). Exercise during pregnancy gives babies’ brains a boost. Los Angeles Times.
Labonte-Lemoyne, D., et al. (2013). Foetal brain development is influenced by maternal exercise during pregnancy. Neuroscience 2013 presentation.