Regular exercise has been linked with a variety of boosts to brain health, from possibly decreasing the impacts of chemo brain to helping slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients. It’s also been linked with a lower dementia risk overall. A new study investigated how exercise impacts the brain to get a better idea of the mechanism behind these purported benefits.
Research recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease used MRI scans to investigate how regular moderate to vigorous exercise impacts brain volume. This was in an effort to help understand the possible neuroprotective effects of physical activity.
The findings, which came from data on more than 10,000 people, showed that the more someone exercised at a moderate level or above, the higher their brain volume in several different regions impacting information processing and memory. The team says this may help explain the dementia link.
Dr. Cyrus A. Raji, lead researcher and Director of Neuromagnetic Resonance Imaging at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, says, “Our research supports earlier studies that show being physically active is good for your brain. Exercise not only lowers the risk of dementia but also helps in maintaining brain size, which is crucial as we age.”
To conduct the research, the team looked at whole-body MRI scans from Prenuvo imaging centers involving 10,125 healthy participants. Deep learning models then analyzed several different views. The researchers found that those who regularly took part in activities that boosted breathing and pulse rates for at least 10 continuous minutes had larger volumes of gray matter, which helps with information processing; white matter, which connects several brain regions; and the hippocampus, which is important for memory.
Even moderate levels of exercise, including taking fewer than 4,000 steps a day rather than the broadly recommended 10,000 steps, were found to have a positive impact.
Dr. Rajpaul Attariwala, senior author, says, “With comprehensive imaging scans, our study underscores the interconnected synergy between the body and the brain. It echoes the knowledge of past generations, showcasing that increased physical activity is a predictor of a healthier aging brain.”
So what counts as moderate to vigorous exercise? Moderate options include brisk walking, heavy cleaning, light cycling, and sports like tennis doubles. Vigorous activity includes running, hiking, fast cycling, and team sports involving more running, like basketball.
Other research has found that to take advantage of the brain benefits of exercise, though, you also need to get a good night’s sleep. You can read more about that here.