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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?
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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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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