Exercise Boosts the Brain and the Body

by Staff Writer
February 13, 2024 at 11:43 AM UTC

Regular exercise benefits the brain, improving memory and learning abilities.

Clinical relevance: Regular exercise benefits the brain, improving memory and learning abilities.

  • Researchers analyzed MRI brain scans of more than 10,000 patients, finding that physical activity correlated with larger brain volumes in areas responsible for processing data, linking brain regions, and memory function.
  • Even moderate levels of physical activity, such as fewer than 4,000 steps a day, were associated with positive effects on brain health, challenging the notion that extensive exercise is necessary.
  • This research supports previous findings linking physical activity to reduced dementia risk and underscores the significance of lifestyle factors in brain health and Alzheimer’s prevention.

The benefits of regular exercise are one of the few things everyone can agree on. What’s been less publicized – until now – is how much it can benefit the brain, too, even in smaller doses.

A team of researchers operating out of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center published a study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease that showed that physical activity corresponded to a larger section of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

“Our research links regular physical activity to larger brain volumes, suggesting neuroprotective benefits,” study co-author Somayeh Meysami, MD, assistant professor of neurosciences at Saint John’s Cancer Institute and the Pacific Brain Health Center, suggested, “This large sample study furthers our understanding of lifestyle factors in brain health and dementia prevention.”

Poring Over Brain Scans

The scientists sifted through MRI brain scans from more than 10,000 patients that technicians performed at Prenuvo imaging centers – one of the study’s research partners.

The scans revealed that those patients who engaged in physical exercise – whether it was walking, running, or organized team sports – exhibited expanded brain volumes in critical areas:

  • The gray matter – which helps the brain process data.
  • The white matter – which links different regions of the brain together.
  • The hippocampuswhich play a critical role in memory functions. 

“Our research supports earlier studies that show being physically active is good for your brain,”  co-author David Merrill, MD, PhD, director of the Pacific Brain Health Center, explained, “Exercise not only lowers the risk of dementia but also helps in maintaining brain size, which is crucial as we age.”

But the benefits of physical activity aren’t limited to someone training for a 5k, which gives hope to the rest of us.

“We found that even moderate levels of physical activity, such as taking fewer than 4,000 steps a day, can have a positive effect on brain health,” Merrill added. “This is much less than the often-suggested 10,000 steps, making it a more achievable goal for many people.” 

Supports Earlier Exercise Research

Earlier research, such as 2020 Lancet Commission research project, revealed roughly a dozen modifiable risk factors that increase Alzheimer’s risk, including physical activity – or lack thereof. In short, the findings uncovered a previously unrealized connection between caloric burn and enhanced brain makeup.

“This study demonstrates the influence of exercise on brain health imaging and when added to other studies on the role of diet, stress reduction, and social connection offer the proven benefits of drug-free modifiable factors in substantially reducing Alzheimer’s disease,” Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease Editor-in-Chief George Perry wrote in response to this latest research.

Further Reading

Sedentary Time as a Risk Factor for Dementia

Early Improvements Predict Treatment Response in Alzheimer’s

Addressing Challenges in Alzheimer’s Disease

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