Can exercise strengthen and grow your brain? Recent research says yes—that regular endurance exercise, such as running or powerwalking, positively affects the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped, curved structure of the brain associated with memory and ability to learn.
Using technologies that examine the workings of individual neurons (nerve cells), and the makeup of brain matter itself, researchers have discovered that physical endurance exercise appears to prevent shrinkage of the brain, while enhancing cognitive flexibility. The hippocampus seems to be especially receptive to new neuron growth in response to exercise.
Of mice and men
In 2011, a team of researchers led by Justin S. Rhodes, a psychology professor at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, took four groups of mice and placed them into four distinct living environments. One group lived in an enriched world of sensual pleasures, dining on cheese, fruit and nuts, with added spices for variety, and flavoured waters for fluids. Their sleeping quarters consisted of colourful plastic “igloos” and their playgrounds of neon-hued spheres, plastic tunnels, blocks, seesaws and mirrors. A second group of mice also enjoyed these sensual simulators but their playgrounds included small running wheels. A third group’s cages were bare of embellishments, their food consisting of kibble. A fourth group was given kibble to eat, and a playground devoid of toys except for running wheels.
At the start of the study, all the mice were given a series of cognitive tests and injected with a substance that allowed the researchers to track changes in their brain structures. After the mice spent several months in their living environments, Rhodes and his team put them through the same tests and examined their brain tissues. Neither the toys nor treats had improved the brains of the mice.
In fact, the only thing that proved relevant in Rhodes’ experiment was whether or not the mice had access to an exercise wheel. The mice that worked out regularly had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the mice that lived a highly stimulating life, but performed little or no physical exercise.
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