Exercise benefits mind as well as body

Special to the Herald-LeaderFebruary 25, 2013 

Dana Lykins, Central Baptist Health

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Most people know that regular exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, benefiting the heart, muscles and waistline. Exercise also is known to have a positive effect on mood, releasing chemicals in the brain that decrease stress and depression. But did you know that physical exercise can have even more benefits for your brain?

Current research shows that aerobic exercise can improve cognition and mental acuity, and slow the cognitive decline due to aging. Studies have found improvements in brain function involved in attention and time management, planning, organization and memory.

Aerobic exercise causes an increase in brain derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which plays a role in the growth of new neurons and synapses and in neuroprotection. This neuroprotective effect makes the brain cells more resistant to neurological injury, such as with stroke or a traumatic brain injury, and helps to slow the progression of neurological diseases such as Parkinson's disease. Regular aerobic exercise may also help in the recovery of functional loss after damage to the brain.

Exactly how physical exercise improves brain function is still being studied, but here's what we know so far: Aerobic exercise increases neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin and norepinephrine, which aid in information processing. There is also an increase in neurtrophins such as BDNF, which protect the brain cells, acts as a "first aid" on damaged brain cells and facilitates growth of new neurons and synapses.

How do you choose what type of exercise to do and how much? First, and most importantly, you should check with your physician before beginning a new exercise program. Choose an exercise that you enjoy. It could be an aerobics class at a gym, cycling, walking or running. Activities that challenge your mind and coordination, such as a dance class, can have even more positive effects on your brain. Start slowly and build your endurance and stamina.

Studies varied in the amount of exercise per session, from 15 to 90 minutes three to five days a week, finding that even the smallest amount resulted in improved brain changes. Get moving today and start improving your brain.

Dana Lykins is a physical therapist with Baptist Health Lexington's outpatient neurological therapy program.

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