The best workout for the brain may be play

Posted: Sunday, November 07, 2010

Editor's note: "Focus on Fitness" is a Clarion feature with healthy lifestyle advice from local and national health and fitness experts. Check here weekly great information and tips on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Always consult with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

The link between learning and exercise is now well established. As kids return to the classroom this fall, and as more parents discover that school recess and P.E. have been cut back or eliminated entirely, families are making exercise an after-school priority that is as important to their kids' success at school as reading and homework.

Substantial research has been done on the effect of exercise on budding intellects. The Journal of School Health published a study in 1997 showing that intense physical activity programs had positive impacts on academic achievement. Even when the activity reduced the amount of time kids had for academics, exercise was found to increase concentration, reduce disruptive behavior, and improve test scores in mathematics, reading and writing.

New research reveals that the connection between learning and exercise is not limited to children. In a study published in a recent issue of the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers found that after a year of exercise, adult subjects showed enhanced cognitive skills.

In this study, adult subjects followed an exercise program of moderate walking, stretching or toning for 40 minutes three times a week for one year. Prior to the study, all of the participants had been, as the researchers called them, "professional couch potatoes," each one reporting having done fewer than two 30-minute sessions of physical activity in the previous six months. After just one year of activity, however, the subjects -- who ranged in age from 59 to 80 -- had improved connectivity of important circuits in their brain and had mitigated declines in their brain function that are typically associated with aging. Furthermore, they showed improved performance on cognitive tasks.

These findings, which prove the link between exercise and improved cognitive function, should not be surprising. A high percentage of your brain is dedicated to coordinating the actions of your muscles. The concept of "aerobics" was born when astronauts doing mental training in the 1960s showed slower response rates the longer the missions ran. Dr. Kenneth Cooper, an Air Force physician, surmised that though the astronauts' tasks were almost entirely mental, their bodies' fatigue due to lack of fitness was dampening their brain function. To better the astronauts' brains, Cooper prescribed a program that required the astronauts to exercise large muscle groups in a rhythmic fashion -- in a word, aerobics.

Since then, a veritable library of research has cataloged the correlation between exercise and cognitive function, including the Maastricht Aging Study, which recognized that among all age groups (from young folks to those 90 and older), those who were more active were faster in tests involving information processing.

Plenty of other animal and human studies have pointed up the relationship between exercise and an increase in neural growth factor (NGF), a protein that sets in motion a domino effect in your brain that culminates with even some neural and brain capillary growth. Other studies have shown that engaging in new forms of activity in midlife and beyond forces the creation of new synapses within the brain. The MacArthur Foundation Study of Successful Aging found that the seniors who were most physically active were the most likely to maintain their mental acuity up to 10 years later.

To receive tips and news about research that links brain development and exercise, send an e-mail to or register at

Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. Visit

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