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Words of Wellness-Boost Your Brain Power - May 8, 2013

By: Kate Adams

Dietitian at On With Life


In case you needed another push to get yourself up and moving… exercise is good for your brain! New research with both humans and mice has shown how different types of exercise affect the brain. Stick with me as this is a little wordy.


It was in the 1990s that scientists first discovered that mice given access to a running wheel has far more cells in the area of the brain that controls memory than those who didn’t run. The mice that exercised performed better on memory tests than their sedentary counterparts.  Since then, scientists have been working to understand this in more detail and just how exactly exercise improves memory. 


A study at the University of British Columbia recruited women ages 70-80 who have been found to have mild cognitive impairment. First, the researchers found that after weight training, the women improved their associative memory or the ability to recall things in a context, a good example of this is a stranger’s name and how you were introduced. They wanted to look at different types and memory and different forms of exercise as well. Participants were randomly assigned to lift weights, walk briskly or, as a control measure, stretch and tone.  At the beginning of the trial, the women completed tests designed to study their verbal and spatial memory, as both of these commonly deteriorate with age. 


At the end of the six months the memory tests were completed again. The control group who focused on toning scored worse on the memory tests then they had at the start of the study. Both the walking and weight training groups performed better on almost all of the cognitive tests.  They improved equally on the spatial memory portions, the women who walked showed greater gains in verbal memory than the women who lifted weights. Participants commented that they had hoped to just see fewer declines but were pleased to see improvements.


Further studies have been done on lab rats to see what was going on in their bodies and brains. It was found that the rats that ran showed increased levels on a protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is known to support the health of existing neurons and coax the creation of new brain cells. The weight lifters (yes, lab rats “weight-lifted” by taping weights to the animals’ tails and had them repeatedly climb little ladders,) had significantly higher amounts of a different protein, insulinlike growth factor when compared to the runners. This substance promotes cell division and growth and likely helps fragile new neurons to survive. 


So what does all of this tell us? Get moving! While there were differences between aerobic or resistance training in terms of memory improvements, they were subtle. The effects of exercise on overall cognitive function were profound.