Maybe you don’t work out often as you’d like. Perhaps you hit the gym once or twice a week, or enjoy a hike or bike ride on weekends. Or you have a hard time motivating to exercise, because you’re not sure it’s doing any good.
New research in mice shows that even a single bout of exercise benefits the brain. While everybody knows that regular physical activity is good for brain health (and overall health), researchers weren’t sure what the effects were of inconsistent exercise.
Just One Workout Boosts Synapses and Learning in Brain
Neuroscientists at Oregon Health and Science University discovered that, in mice, even a short burst of exercise directly boosts the activation of a gene that increases connections between neurons in the learning area of the brain.
“Exercise is cheap, and you don’t necessarily need a fancy gym membership or have to run 10 miles a day,” said co-senior author Gary Westbrook, MD, senior scientist at the OHSU Vollum Institute and Dixon Professor of Neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine.
For the study, the scientists put sedentary mice on running wheels for short periods of time and measured the brain’s response to the physical activity. They found that when they performed the equivalent of a pickup basketball game or walking 4,000 steps (two miles), the bouts of exercise promoted an increase in synapses in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the area of the brain associated with learning and memory.
How Exercise Stimulates the Brain and Staves Off Dementia
One particular gene, Mtss1L, prompted the growth of dendritic spines on neurons. Dendritic spines are the area where new synapses form. Think of dendritic spines as tiny branches that help facilitate communication between neurons via electrical signals. When dendritic spines are lost in Alzheimer’s disease, functions like sight, hearing, spatial reasoning, language and conscious thinking are impacted.
Previous research on exercise, brain health and Alzheimer’s has shown that physical activity has immediate effects on the brain, but the mechanisms behind it weren’t understood until now.
Any Physical Activity Is Better Than None, Though More Is Better
According to neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, PhD, professor of neural science and psychology in the Center for Neural Science at New York University and author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, immediately after exercise, your prefrontal cortex works better. This area of the brain affects executive function, like focus, attention and decision-making.
Being physically fit and exercising regularly, Suzuki says, could lower dementia risk by up to 90 percent. It also slows down the progression of dementia in people with Alzheimer’s.
While regular activity is best for your brain and overall health, any bit of activity will benefit your brain.