Even Mild Exercise Helps the Brain

by David Perlmutter, M.D., Board-Certified Neurologist, #1 New York Times Best-Selling Author, Fellow of the American College of Nutrition

An important part of my lectures over the past several years has been to emphasize how our choices in terms of various lifestyle issues including sleep, diet, and exercise, will ultimately play out in terms of the destiny of our brains. For example, we have long been discussing how exercising today relates to a healthy brain in the future, especially its association with reduced risk for dementia.

Now, new data is revealing that exercise not only has long-term benefits in terms of the brain, but even more acute changes are being discovered that are clearly positive.

In their recent publication in the peer-reviewed journal, PNAS, Japanese researchers, with the understanding that physical exercise does benefit how the brain works, wanted to determine some specifics about just how much exercise is required to be helpful. Their human research utilized some very sophisticated, high-resolution MRI brain scanning techniques that are able to delineate the functionality of the brain’s memory center, the hippocampus. The research demonstrated that a single, 10 minute exercise intervention of very light intensity caused a very rapid and obvious increase in the connection between the brain’s memory center, again the hippocampus, and the rest of the brain. Subjects underwent memory testing, and these evaluations demonstrated a strong correlation between what was seen on the functional MRIs, and memory function.

Again, the relationship between exercise and better brain function has been known for quite some time, but a lot of the work has been done with animals. This new human study really ratchets up our ability to make specific recommendations for people.

I am often asked questions about how much exercise and what type of exercises required. This study really does support the idea that virtually any type of aerobic exercise, even if “mild,” does impart some positive functionality for the brain.

As the authors of this important reported:

“We find that this brief intervention rapidly enhanced highly detailed memory processing and resulted in elevated activity in the hippocampus and the surrounding regions, as well as increased coupling between the hippocampus and cortical regions previously known to support detailed memory processing. These findings represent a mechanism by which mild exercise, on par with yoga and tai chi, may improve memory.”

So the message is clear, you don’t have to train for a half marathon, or bike 30 miles. As this study demonstrated, even just 10 minutes of exercise seems to provide significant brain benefits.

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