People Who Exercise Have Bigger Brains

Story at a Glance

  • In a new study, people who weren’t physically active in their midlife had brains smaller than their peers twenty years later.
  • As we age our prefront cortex and hippocampus get smaller, but exercise may make the brain bigger.
  • People who had lower cardiovascular fitness and higher blood pressure and heart rate response to fitness had small brains nearly two decades later.

Just when you thought pumping iron was only good for giving you big guns, science goes and gives us yet another reason to hit the gym. The benefits of exercise just seem to keep on growing. Not only does it create endorphins, new brain cells and keeps your waistline in check, it turns out, it’s also going to give you a bigger brain.

If there was ever a reason to get off the couch and pull on your sneakers this might be it. People who exercise through middle age have larger brains than those who spend it flaked out in front of the TV.

The new study published in the journal of Neurology has shown that people who weren’t physically active in their midlife had brains smaller than their peers twenty years later.

The sad fact of life is that as we get older not only do parts of our body start to sag, our brain is affected too. Our once bonnie, large brains start to shrink. Most specifically, the prefrontal cortex. Now that’s a pretty important part of the brain. It’s where our personality expresses itself, where we manage our cognitive and social behaviour and where we do all our planning and decision making. Frankly, it’s not a great place to start shrinking. But the other area of our brain that reduces in size as we age is our hippocampus. This part of the brain is integral in making new brain cells, it’s where our memory, emotions and learning takes place. Again, not the best spot to undergo reduction of mass.  In anyone’s books, both areas are worth keeping in optimum shape not to mention size.

But before you throw in the towel and relegate the rest your life to dribbling unevenly from one side of your mouth, there appears to be good news.

Exercise.

In a study1 that started in 1948, now onto its third generation of participants, it observed the correlation between cardiovascular fitness of people in there 40’s and the size of their brain over the period of the study.

What it found was that people who had lower cardiovascular fitness and higher blood pressure and heart rate response to fitness had small brains nearly two decades later.

“Promotion of midlife cardiovascular fitness may be an important step towards ensuring healthy brain aging,” the study noted.

The study1 suggests that exercise training may increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which improves the brain’s ability to form new neurons and prevent the brain from atrophying. In a previous post we have covered the benefits of BDNF, which is linked to the production of new brain cells (neurogenesis) that is increased through exercise. Neurogenesis may have a potential therapeutic role in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and is also increased through exercising.

It’s unclear at this stage at which point in life exercise is most important – midlife or at the end of your life.

“We are not able to tell from our study whether fitness in midlife or later life matters more,” says study author Nicole Spartano, a postdoctoral fellow at the Boston University School of Medicine. “In future studies I would like to explore this distinction, to see whether one is more important than the other. But it is likely that both are important.”

Either way, if you’re not already hitting the treadmill, maybe it’s time you were!

References

[1]Midlife exercise blood pressure, heart rate, and fitness relate to brain volume 2 decades later. Nicole L. Spartano, PhD, Jayandra J. Himali, PhD, Alexa S. Beiser, PhD, Gregory D. Lewis, MD, Charles DeCarli, MD, Ramachandran S. Vasan, MD and Sudha Seshadri, MD February 10, 2016, doi: http:/ / dx. doi. org/ 10. 1212/ WNL. 0000000000002415 Neurology 10.1212/WNL.0000000000002415