When it comes to our brains, physical fitness is already a triple threat. It has been shown to decrease risk of dementia, stress, and depression. Now, a new study shows that physical fitness is also good for brain structure and cognitive function, which means it helps us learn, think, reason, problem-solve, and make decisions better.
The research, presented at the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECN) and published in Scientific Reports, was conducted by scientists at University Hospital Muenster in Germany. Using data from the Human Connectome Project, the research began by looking at 1,206 "publicly available" magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRIs) from the project. The images were of young adult volunteers whose average age was 28.8 and who were motivated to advance scientific research.
As an example of collaboration "across the miles," even though the research was done in Germany, subjects were primarily recruited and studied in Missouri. Those participants visited Washington University in St. Louis twice for "magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanning of the brain and extensive behavioral assessment on each of two days.
Some, but not all, of the original volunteer group participated in additional testing: 1,204 participants did "endurance" with a walking test, and 1,187 took cognitive tests to assess memory, judgment, and more.
Large Database Was an Advantage
The team leader and the study's corresponding author, psychiatrist Jonathan Repple, MD of University Hospital Muenster, said in a statement that having such a large database was really helpful to "eliminate possibly misleading factors and strengthened the analysis considerably."
He noted that even in younger people, cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels drop,
something he'd expect to see in the elderly who might not have great health—but seeing it in the younger group was surprising. He added that "a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health."
On to the next challenge, he suggests: "We see that fitter people have better brain health, so we now need to ask whether actually making people fitter will improve their brain health."
In a related comment, Professor Peter Falkai of University Clinic in Munich took the study's potential a bit farther. Even though the study focused on healthy young adults, he reminded us that physical activity is important during all life stages, and that starting a fitness program later in life is never too late.
How to Get Motivated for Fitness
If you're already into fitness, then raise your hand so we can give you a virtual high five! If you're not, maybe you could use some motivation to get into the documented and anecdotal wonderfulness of being fit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says don't make it hard and they share this short, to-the-point tip sheet.
- Doing something is much better than doing nothing.
- Getting started is everything.
- Start small.
- Everyone’s different. Find what works for you.
- Consistency is key.
The Mayo Clinic has some great suggestions, too, to reinforce the fact that, yes, you can. We added our own twist here to help get you going:
Set goals. This helps you imagine long-term success. Hey, you need something to work for and be proud of, and those are your specific goals. And yes, they can change as you do.
Make it fun. If it's not fun, you won't do it. Play your jams, wear a cute outfit, go outside and commune with nature—yes, really.
Make physical activity part of your daily routine. Ask anyone who exercises regularly and it shows on them: "Do you like doing this?" They wouldn't do it so much if they didn't like it, and if they didn't get results. Finishing a workout makes you feel great.
Put it on paper. Keep a log to track results. Write down how you felt that day before and after. Track your patterns to become more self-aware, and to determine what you want to improve.
Join forces with friends, neighbors, or others. No one said you should go this alone. And remember, above, we talked about fun? Exercise with a friend is always more fun than going solo. Being social when you're sweating keeps you motivated and that ups your changes of sticking with it. Share those "Atta'girls!" and "Way to gos!"
Reward yourself. New outfit? Spa day? Sleeping in on a work day? Pat yourself on the back with something special for all of your hard work. Yes, you've earned it.
Be flexible. You know you should try to mix up your routine with cardio, strength and flexibility training. Being "flexible" means trying different things so you benefit your "whole" body and you don't get bored. That's why gyms, fitness clubs, and the "Y" are so great, and some have really long lists of different classes. Don't assume you can't do one, and maybe you won't be the star on your first outing, but you can be with determination and…flexibility!
You've got so many important reasons to stay active. Your body—and brain—will thank you.