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The brain virtues of physical exercise

Dr. Adrian Preda, our newest Expert Contributor, writes today the first in a series of thought-provoking articles,physical exercise for the brain challenging us to think about physical exercise as the best and most unappreciated form of “brain exercise”. A superb article.

And one thing is clear, he points out: “the brain really likes it when it’s asked to be “active”. Passive audiences, which are spoon fed information, score less well when tested on retention and understanding of the presented material than audiences that were kept engaged through the process.”

So, will you write a comment below and contribute to an engaging conversation? Thoughts? reactions? questions?

Don’t ignore plain old common sense.

Brain Lessons Part 1

— By Adrian Preda, M.D.

Let me start with a list of common biases: expensive is better than cheap, free is of dubious value (why would then be free?), rare is likely to be valuable, and while new is better than old, ancient is always best. Which explains a common scenario that is reenacted about twice a week in my office. It starts like this: a patient shows me a fancy looking bottle of the brain supplement of the week: ancient roots with obscure names mixed together in another novel combination which you can exclusively find in that one and only store (rarity oblige!). And not to forget: it ain’t cheap either! Of course, there it is, the perfect the recipe for success: ancient yet new, rare and expensive. It got to be good! But is it, really?

The problem with recommending physical exercise when it comes to brain fitness is that is doesn’t have any of the glamour traits I have just mentioned: it’s been around for a long time – so there is nothing new and exciting about it, there is no fancy name or exclusive label marketing it and, worst of all, it is as cheap as cheap can be: not only free but also available in unlimited supplies.

So when I tell my patients that the single most important thing they need to pay attention to when it comes to keeping their brain in shape is exercise I invariably get a “really, and you needed to get an MD to tell me this?” look. Nowadays everybody seems to know that physical exercise is good for the brain. Big news they say. And they needed to study that? Duh?

For most it’s no big surprise to find out the people who have a physically active life style have a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s dementia or the number of blocks one walks everyday appears to inversely correlate with the rate of cognitive decline later in life. It sort of makes sense to assume that has to be the case. Here are a few well established facts.

First of all, regular physical exercise correlates with improved health – meaning less risk for high blood pressure, metabolic problems (cholesterol, lipids and glucose dysregulation) and weight gain, which is all good for the brain. A healthy brain needs a healthy environment, doesn’t it? Or to put it in a slightly different way: an unhealthy environment would not be good for the brain, wouldn’t it? I think we would all agree on that one.

Now, would a healthy environment not only protect but also improve the brain structure and performance? Would it also promote the growth (if possible) of the brain? The answers to such questions are less obvious. For example we know that not all healthy people end up with “good brains”. Well, why is that? Specifically, when it comes to physical exercise then are there such things as a minimal dose of exercise that can result in positive brain effects? And is there a maximal or “toxic” dose of physical exercise which may in fact hurt the brain? Is all physical exercise equally good for the brain or do different physical exercise routines differ in terms of their brain effects? I put those questions on the table and the chance is that I got the “duh” people’s attention.

First, let me say that to scientists the physical exercise question is no different that any other scientific question. Scientists tend to be a skeptical bunch and as such they like to always point out that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Take the old active people who didn’t get Alzheimer’s example. One possibility is that their consistent exercising keeps them from getting Alzheimer’s. But what is it that got them to exercise more in the first place? Could it be that their brains were equipped with the sort of gear that gets one excited about pushing themselves a bit, which would then result in these fellows being more prone towards doing physical things to start with? Then they will be more active physically but that is because their brains were wired differently from the gecko and that, in itself, might have decreased the risk of Alzheimer’s dementia. In a situation like this physical exercise is what scientists call a confounder – i.e. a concomitant but not necessarily casual event that can falsely be seen as a cause resulting in the final effect.

How can one figure this one out? Over the next few columns we will look together at ways of answering apparently not so straightforward questions about physical exercise and the brain.

Now, to begin I will like to make this column, to whatever extent possible, an interactive forum. And that is as it turns out that the brain really likes it when it’s asked to be “active”. Passive audiences, which are spoon fed information, score less well when tested on retention and understanding of the presented material than audiences that were kept engaged through the process. So, in the spirit of “engagement” I will start by asking a few questions about what is important when it comes to the effects of physical exercise on the brain. Depending on what your answers will be we will then take it to the next level, i.e. critically examine the research evidence about specific brain effects of different types of physical exercise.

So, consider which of the following possibilities will get you convinced that physical exercise is good for the brain. Would you be convinced if exercise has been shown to:

1. Increase longevity (as a better brain should make us live longer, shouldn’t it?)
2. Decrease the risk of Alzheimer and other types of dementia
3. Decrease the risk of “normal” age related memory loss or cognitive decline
4. Increase one’s ability to problem solve
5. Decrease one’s risk for depression or anxiety.
6. Improve one’s memory, concentration and attention.
7. Improve one’s ability to feel consistently happy.
8. Increase the number of nerve cells or nerve cells connections in the brain?
9. Correlate with higher education
10. Correlate with higher social economic status?
11. Chemicals released during exercise were shown to promote nerve cell growth?
12. Exercise would “correct” chemical abnormalities reported in mental or brain illness?

I am looking forward to your answers. Please do not hesitate to come up with other questions or hypotheses. We’ll make this into an exercise about how to think about physical exercise. Another form of exercise that might be good for the brain.

Adrian Preda, M.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in the UC Irvine School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior. His expertise in human behavior, psychology and spirituality is based on years of experience working as a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, teacher and researcher in a variety of academic clinical and non-clinical settings. He also teaches the UC Irvine Extension class The Mind that Changes the Brain: Wellness in the Second Millennium.

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33 Responses

  1. OldBear34 says:

    At the tender age of 72 I began a regular program of cardio and weight training, primarily because I wanted to lose weight. I have found that though weight loss has not come as quickly as I would have liked, other benefits have. I no longer require my mid-afternoon nap. My energy has increased to the point that I’m going back to school to get another Masters degree.

  2. Alvaro says:

    That’s excellent! what are you getting your Masters degree on? feel free to share with us what you learn, if related to our field.

  3. maureen may says:

    I agree with your points. Hoever, No. 11 does bother me because I am not in the higher social income category. However, with my active lifestyle, I keep on improving…and at 76.

  4. Lilia says:

    Unfortunately, common sense is the least common of the senses, and so many people keep ignoring their bodies warnings. Excercise and regular training is indeed one amazingly effective, cheap, and easy way to get a better, happier, longer, more active and complete life. Moreover, training is the best way I’ve found to start my day with energy and positive thoughts… It’s not that difficult. One step at the time… Keep doing that one day at the time and your body will start cooperating more with your mind.

  5. George McHugh says:

    I would love to see information about questions 4,5,and 6. The impact of these areas on peoples lives is significant. This could sell to employers and benefits providers. We might all have gyms at work!

  6. Dan Mckenzie says:

    From personal experience, I believe that physical exercise helps brain’s sharpness. I am a university student majoring in mathematics. I really saw nightmares on the hardness of material in my first year and was bit depressing. I tried on the strategy of devoting most of my time for studying and this becomes even more depressing considering the long thinking thread required for some of the proof related problem sets. In my second year, I delved so much into playing soccer and badminton. These seems to boost my esteem in the program. I have gain more motivation than ever before. I am more organized and focussed in improving my GPA to a level that I may gain admission into PHd program in one of the Ivy schools-which is my dream anyway. So, from my perspective, physical exercise is helpful.

  7. Elizabeth says:

    How does one recover memory loss or mind “sluggishness” from the side effects of chemo or radiation (known as “cancer brain or chemo brain”)? This is not related to brain cancer but occurs with any type of cancer that is being treated. As breast cancer survivor, I do not have all my memory or cognition that I had prior to cancer diagnosis and I have not found exercise to help with this. But I do “feel” better when I exercise so I don’t “mind what I don’t remember”!!

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