• Robb G. Best

Strolling Towards a Better Brain

You already know that exercise is good for you. You may already know that exercise is good for your mind.

For instance, you may have encountered studies which show how half an hour of vigorous exercise gives you a boost in brain-derived neurotropic growth factor or BDNF, what’s sometimes referred to as “miracle-gro for the brain.”

That’s not the kind of nickname that comes casually; BDNF stimulates the production of new brain cells and increases your neuroplasticity, which allows the components of your brain to work more smoothly with each other.

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that the top quartile of older individuals who kept active retained noticeably more grey matter than the others, specifically in areas related to memory and higher-level thinking. And those with more grey matter were also shown to be 50% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or other memory problems over the next five years. “If we want to live a long time but also keep our memories, our basic selves, intact, keep moving,” lead researcher Dr. Cyrus Raji told the New York Times.

However, at the word “exercise” you are probably picturing a hard, tiring, sweaty workout—the kind of thing that can be hard to fit into an average day in your already-hectic life. Could a brief relaxed walk make any difference? And what result would one single ten-minute chunk of walking have on your brain? Recently, a joint study between researchers at University of California, Irvine, and the University of Tsukuba in Japan set out to answer these questions.

Scientists invited 36 healthy young students to the lab. On one occasion, the volunteers were instructed to sit still on an exercise bike for ten minutes; in another instance, they were told to lightly pedal for the same period of time. This created an extremely mild form of exercise, less strenuous than a brisk walk. The subjects then took a difficult, image-based memory test. When they had used the bike before, they scored significantly better. Interestingly, the bike use made the most positive difference when the memory test was at its hardest.

The researchers then replicated this procedure, only this time, the student volunteers took the memory test from within an MRI machine. Thanks to MRI scans, the researchers were able to observe that the post-pedaling brain worked differently, with portions of the brain related to learning lighting up in a more coordinated fashion. This suggests that the light, gentle exercise still managed to noticeably improve the connection between disparate parts of the brain.

So even on days where a 5k is beyond you, it’s highly worth it to lace up those walking shoes for a quick ten-minute after-dinner amble. Your memory will thank you.

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