This is your brain on exercise…got it?

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, is a Certified Health Coach and a longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center. 

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

A brief glance in the mirror at the gym provides a fairly accurate picture of what is happening to our bodies as we exercise.  We train our biceps hard, and they grow in response to the stimulus placed upon them.  Be it overload, high volume, or hypertrophy training, we have visual proof that what we are doing is working.

What about the benefits that we cannot see? An expanding body of research shows that exercise can actually improve the performance of the brain by boosting memory and cognitive processing speed. While exercise is benefitting your musculature, could it also be creating a stronger, faster brain?

It has long been believed that the human brain contains a fixed number of neurons – brain cells that help us think. Determined at birth, scientists did not think the brain was capable of regenerating such cells, a process known as neurogenesis.  However, studies performed on mice by Dr. Fred Gage and colleagues at the Salk University in San Diego proved startlingly otherwise. 

Dr. Gage’s research indicated that the brains of mice that were allowed to run vigorously on a wheel actually produced up to three times as many new neurons as the mice that didn’t exercise. Furthermore, these same mice easily navigated through complex mazes, leading the team of scientists to conclude that these new neurons were responsible for improved thinking.

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As it turns out, the human brain is likewise capable of neurogenesis, and exercise seems to be a huge contributor to this activity.  Neuroscientists at Columbia University in New York published a study in which a group of individuals ranging in age from 21 to 45 began exercising for 1 hour, 4x/ week. Over the course of 12 weeks, the test subjects not only became more fit, but MRI testing revealed that their blood flowed at a much higher volume to the specific part of the brain responsible for neurogenesis. These subjects also showed significant improvements in memory.

Many neurologists believe that the loss of neurons in the brain may be a primary cause of the cognitive decay associated with aging. With exercise proving to be a driving force toward improving the capabilities of neurogenesis, we may actually be able to have a modicum of control over our mental faculties as we proceed through our golden years. Now, not only will our brains be controlling our behavior; our rituals in the gym may actually be exercising control over our brain development!