The Impact of Physical Activities on the Brain
Physical activity or exercise is one of those activities that many of us know we should be doing more of! Research continues to emphasise on the wide-ranging benefits of engaging in regular physical activity – including achieving a healthy weight, improving your sleep patterns, managing your cholesterol and blood pressure, improving your mental health and more. What is becoming clearer is that regular physical activity directly benefits brain health. This is of particular interest to dementia researchers who are starting to understand more about the link between physical activity levels and dementia risk.
The figure is adapted from Erickson et al. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory.The figure is adapted from Erickson et al. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory.
The figure above is taken from a study that looked at the impact of physical activities on different brain structures. One hundred and twenty older adults (average age of 66.5 years old) were randomly allocated to either a moderate intensity walking group (blue line) or a stretching group (red line). Over one year, the stretching group showed the reduction in the volume of their hippocampal region, an area which is critically important for memory function. By contrast, the walking group showed an increase in the volume of their hippocampal region. This evidence demonstrates that increased physical activity can result in the growth of certain areas of the brain. The researchers also reported a significant increase in the memory function of the walking group. The greater the hippocampus, the better the cognitive function of the individuals.
What is Hippocampus?
Hippocampus is a complex brain structure embedded deep into temporal lobe (hindsight of the brain). It has a major role in learning and memory. This part of brain has been one of the most extensively studied. It is the earliest and most severely affected structure in several neuropsychiatric disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
From the above research, it seems there is sufficient evidence to establish a clear link between physical activity and the benefits for cognitive health. In fact, the Finnish Geriatric Intervention Study to Prevent Cognitive Impairment and Disability (FINGER) also suggests that physical activities are essential to prevent dementia. It is now crucial for us to translate this knowledge into actions. We need to ensure all, regardless of age, to have access to programs or information which helps them to do the right physical activity, at the right time, and the right duration, so that they have the best possible outcome for their cognitive health as they get older.
- University of Tasmania – Preventing Dementia, Module 2: Dementia risk – It’s not all in your head
- Hippocampus in health and disease: An overview
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 108, 3017-3022
- FINGER study
Written by Tommy Tan