Exercise improves brain's function, researchers find

Program of brisk walking is tied to attention span, decision-making in study

March 17, 2004|By Ronald Kotulak | Ronald Kotulak,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Brisk walking and other aerobic exercise not only strengthen muscles and improve cardiovascular capacity, they can also bulk up the brain and make it work better, according to University of Illinois researchers.

In the first study of its kind using high-tech neuro-imaging to observe the effect of exercise, the researchers found that physical activity changes the brain's structure and function in ways that improve decision-making. Their report is in the March 2 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Six months of brisk walking produced significant physical changes in the brains of subjects ages 60 to 79, said psychologist Arthur F. Kramer of the university's Urbana-Champaign campus. They had increased connections between neurons in parts of the brain that make a person better able to pay attention, compared with people who were physically inactive.

When given tests that challenged their ability to pay attention, those in the exercise group were able to focus more clearly on goals while disregarding competing but irrelevant information, he said.

"The findings are very interesting and very hopeful," said Molly Wagster, program director for neuropsychology of aging research for the National Institute on Aging, which provided funds for the research.

"Here's a demonstration where physical exercise in humans is something that produces not just a hedging against cognitive decline with age but actually shows that one can have improvement of cognitive function," she said.

The study was undertaken to determine whether people respond to exercise the same way that animals do, Kramer said. Animal studies show that exercise leads to the growth of new brain cells, more connections between them and increased blood circulation.

"What our data show is that you can actually enhance cognition and brain structure and function," Kramer said. "Exercise helps build the brain."

The report also supports a trend among therapists, using exercise to help increase the attention span of children with attention deficit disorder, said Dr. John Ratey, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

"It has come as a big surprise in neuroscience that physical activity is a big promoter for keeping our brains healthy and adaptive," he said. "This is the kind of data we need to reverse a growing practice of schools eliminating physical education as a cost-cutting measure."

William Thies, vice president for medical and scientific affairs for the Chicago-based Alzheimer's Association, said the study reinforces the group's advice to "maintain your brain," a strategy intended to help delay the symptoms of dementia.

"It's a powerful demonstration of the fact that there's a direct relationship between fitness and brain health," he said. "People are often reluctant to engage in physical exercise because they think they have to run marathons and look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But this shows that with a relatively modest aerobic plan you end up improving brain function."

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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