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How Exercise Works Out Your Brain

Shannon Harvey

Regular readers of this blog will know that although I’m a health journalist, and am really really excited by finding new ways to find balance and stay healthy in this crazy-busy age of information overload, I’m not the gym-junkie, bikini-body, abs-of-steel type. In fact, as I wrote about on my blog a short time ago, I’ve always found getting into a regular exercise habit exceedingly hard.

Sure, I’ve been on health kicks, and done a bunch of different exercise “challenges.” Sometimes I’ve even had a good time and noticed good results. But the whole weight-loss, big-biceps, toned-tummy thing has just never really been enough of a motivator to get me to stick to a regular work out routine. It takes too darn long to get results, and anyway, there’s work to do, kids to care for, traffic to sit in, friends to catch up with, groceries to buy, meals to cook, dishes to unload, and laundry to fold. Who has the time for exercise? In fact, after I got sick, when my muscles and joints became inflamed with arthritis, my motivation to exercise became completely non-existent. The pain I associated with moving my body was the final obstacle. Exercise just wasn’t my thing.

But my attitude significantly changed when I began researching the link between exercise and chronic disease. A 2015 review highlighted that considerable knowledge has now accumulated concerning the significance of exercise as the first-line of treatment of several chronic diseases. While the review authors acknowledged that exercise should be attempted only when a we’re medically stable and our symptoms are under control, they highlighted that exercise can have many benefits for people with several chronic conditions including mental illness, Parkinson’s disease and dementia, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, osteoarthritis, back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, and even cancer.

I also discovered that exercise doesn’t just make us stronger, faster, fitter and slimmer; it’s also essential for a healthy mind and brain. One particular study leapt out at me because it had the intriguing title “White matter integrity, hippocampal volume, and cognitive performance of a world-famous nonagenarian track-and-field athlete.” In plain English, this means that scientists scanned the brain a woman who was 93-years-old, who also happened to be one of the world’s greatest athletes. I was enthralled by what they found and not only read the paper, I also phoned the lead scientist who performed the study.

That scientist was Arthur Kramer, who is formerly the Director of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, and recently moved to Boston, where he’s now Senior Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Education and a Professor of Psychology & Engineering at Northeastern University. (You can listen to my conversation with him at the end of the blog post).

Kramer scanned the brain of Olga Kotelko, who held over 30 world records and had won over 750 (not a typo) gold medals. At 93, her brain was comparable in some ways to those of women decades younger. The white-matter tracts associated with reasoning, planning, and self-control were in particularly good condition. It was also especially impressive that there were relatively few signs of ageing-related damage to the white-matter tracts in the region of the brain called the corpus callosum, which connects the right and left hemispheres at the very front of the brain and allows one side of the brain to talk to the other.

What was especially interesting to me, as someone who has spent years resisting the whole “you should be exercising more” message, was that Kotelko hadn’t taken up the sport in which she had excelled – track and field – until she was 77 years old. Kramer explained to me that we can’t say for sure that the youthful condition of Kotelko’s brain was a result of her athletic training because he hadn’t been tracking her over time, but it does look that way when you consider some of his other research.

In 2010, Kramer and his team at the Beckman Institute studied 120 men and women aged between 55 and 80 who were not doing any exercise and put half of them through an aerobic training program. After one year they measured changes in their subjects’ brains and discovered increases in the size of the anterior hippocampus and related improvements in spatial memory, which helps us find our way around our environment and remember where things are within it. This part of the brain typically shrinks in late adulthood, causing impaired memory and increased risk for dementia. Kramer found that the simple exercise training program increased hippocampal volume by two percent, “effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by one to two years.”

And the good news is that we don’t need to be world champion athletes to get the brain benefits of moving more. The brain benefits were seen after the participants did only moderate levels of exercise. “A lot of older folks will say to me, ‘I’m too old. I can't do vigorous exercise,’ but it was pretty modest exercise,” Kramer said, explaining that participants started off only walking for about 15 minutes and then gradually built up to walking for 45 minutes to an hour a day, three days a week. “I can tell you, nobody in our groups was winning any medals,” he said.

It was this easy-does-it approach that made all the difference in my own attitude to establishing new exercise habits in my life. I first looked for something that would help loosen my stiff muscles and go easy on my inflamed joints and I started doing gentle hatha yoga. At first I wondered what on earth I was doing and I’d compare myself to the strong, fit, lean people beside me who gracefully moved through each pose while I wobbled and wavered and was all over the place. But with regular practice, I noticed a difference in my sore and tired body and I was encouraged. My balance improved and I became stronger. I began to challenge myself further.

And while I’m not for one second suggesting that we can exercise our way to overcoming chronic disease (just read more on this blog to get a sense of just how complicated finding good health can be), these days I’m highly active and I don’t feel as if there’s anything my illness prevents me from doing.

If you’d like to read more about Olga Kotelko’s remarkable story, then I highly recommend the book What Makes Olga Run by Bruce Grierson. It’s a great read if you’re looking for some inspiration, and proves that it’s never too late to get up and start moving.


Listen to my conversation with Art Kramer in Episode 3 of The Whole Health Life podcast:

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