“Healthy body, healthy mind” is a maxim just about everyone has heard. But perhaps it should be “healthy muscles, healthy body, healthy brain.” For more than 2,000 years, humans have exercised to maintain and improve health, but it is only in recent years that hundreds of scientific studies have proven that exercise can help maintain and improve brain function. Various types of exercise from weight training to aerobics to yoga have shown a variety of benefits. Certainly exercise — by helping manage weight, blood sugar, liver and kidney function and cardiovascular well-being — helps greatly to maintain a healthy brain. Moreover, it has been shown that molecular and genetic changes that occur in exercise have direct effects on brain molecules and the generation of new nerve cells as well as the further growth and connections of mature neurons.
Perhaps the most feared common consequence of aging is the onset of senile dementia. We all joke about memory loss and aging, but really it is no laughing matter. No one wants to lose the ability to reason and recognize the world and people around him. In recent years, medical research has demonstrated that exercise can reduce the incidence and severity of senility, both that which is secondary to cerebrovascular disease and that due to Alzheimer’s. Of note, an interesting recent study showed that exercise involving muscle strengthening was more beneficial than other forms of exercise such as aerobics in reducing the development and severity of dementia in Alzheimer’s. The mechanism of this benefit is still unknown and under intense investigation.
A recently published study from the universities of Milan and Pavia addresses this important issue from the opposite side. Researchers studied what results from the lack of muscle use. We know that astronauts who do not use their legs as much in space and those individuals with illnesses such as multiple sclerosis can develop cognitive deficits such as memory loss and difficulty with concentration. This suggests that lack of lower extremity usage is detrimental to the brain. To study this effect researchers performed a well-constructed experiment in which they immobilized the back legs of mice and after a period of time looked at the cells in specific areas of their brains. They found that neuronal stem cells that are needed to form new nerve cells were greatly diminished in these mice. It is likely that this applies to humans as well but we need much more study to confirm the extent of this effect. This does make sense in light of what the other studies mentioned above have shown.
Clearly, there is not a one-to-one correlation between the loss of use of the legs and cognitive deficits. However, perhaps with aging, individuals who have significant difficulty with the use of their legs do not do as well cognitively. This may be another line worthy of investigation.
What is clear from the extensive science thus far is that we should all be seeking a form of exercise that works for us and incorporate it into our daily routines. Whether by vigorous walking, jogging, running, swimming, aerobics, calisthenics, weight training or myriad other forms of exercise, find what fits you, your skill, your interest and your lifestyle and do it. Do it for your brain.
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– Dr. Ezriel Kornel