How Even Moderate Exercise Can Improve Brain Health

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Exercise is one of the most effective and most easily available means of improving brain health, as Northeastern University neuroscientist Art Kramer, PhD, told the Global Brain Health and Performance Summit presented by The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center’s Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. Over the course of numerous human and animal studies, Kramer noted that even relatively small amounts of moderate exercise of various forms can have dramatic benefits for a vast range of brain functions. “It seems that all forms of exercise have benefits for cognition,” Kramer said.

As Kramer explained, even 150 minutes of weekly exercise can result in improved executive function, the aspect of cognition related to planning, decision-making, and dealing with ambiguity. Studies of animals have shown that exercise increases learning ability and improves memory—and these results have been duplicated in humans. The type of exercise doesn’t seem to matter, either. Kramer cited a recent meta-analysis to explain that the type of exercise isn’t the defining factor here. He noted that “when you segment the nature of the exercise, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference” in terms of impacting performance. The scientific literature around exercise including both observational studies and randomized control trials points toward the cognitive benefits of physical activity. In animals, researchers have observed “changes at pretty much every level,” says Kramer, including in sub-cellular components, like mitochondria.

Kramer explained that exercise produces observable changes in the brain’s physical composition. It “changes the brain structurally,” said Kramer. “Things get bigger when they would have gotten smaller as a function of age,” he added, citing growth of the hippocampus, which supports memory, as one example. “The brain becomes better connected, and therefore more efficient. There are changes in terms of white matter and gray matter, but also the functional connectivity.”

Furthermore, changes in human lifestyle have made exercise much more essential. “When you look at our history, many eons ago we exercised a lot more because if we didn’t run fast we were dead, or couldn’t catch food,” Kramer explained. “These days we mostly sit around and don’t do a whole lot.” In this way, exercise serves as a modern cure for a sedentary lifestyle that is radically different from what humans have experienced for much of the species’ existence. Regular exercise is not only good for the body but also helps to support brain health.

This piece is part of a special brain health initiative curated by Dr. Ali Rezai, Director of Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Stanley D. and Joan H. Ross Center for Brain Health and Performance. For more, visit HuffPost’s Brain Health page.