Regular Exercise Expands Brain Activity, Regulates Mental Health
> 3/19/2007 12:06:47 PM

Scientists and fitness experts have long maintained that vigorous exercise is the most effective prescription for problems with mood stability, concentration and confidence. But improved appearance and endorphin rushes are far from the only benefits drawn from regular visits to the park or the gym. New studies have begun to confirm that the chemical changes brought on by exercise are much wider in scope and longer-lasting than previously thought. For many devotees, this is hardly news. But it serves to reinforce the importance of tightening our bodies to clear and sharpen our minds.

Small, exciting revelations in the scientific community carry great implications for the general public, but only as long as patients retain the willpower to stick with their workout routines. Researchers actually found that periods of moderate to intense aerobic exercise can heighten cognitive functions by creating new nerve cells and strengthening the links between existing ones through the freer flow of blood to the brain. Each time a muscle contracts, it releases these proteins into the bloodstream, stimulating the distribution of oxygen and subsequent cellular activity. Much of the current research focuses on the hippocampus, a region of the brain's temporal lobe that is largely responsible for regulating mood and memory. Researchers have long observed decreasing cell totals in the hippocampi of patients with depression, where dying brain cells outnumber the ones being born. Some antidepressants operate by stimulating nerve growth in this area, and regular exercise works in the same way. In certain patients, it could be more effective than medication.

Aerobic activity also stimulates the frontal lobes responsible for planning and decision-making, in many cases actually making them larger. Lab mice consistently perform better in tests of logic and memory retrieval after running for extended periods, and researchers recorded increased activity in the hippocampus and frontal lobes during the same experiments, resulting in more new cells and releases of essential proteins in the brains of the healthy rats. While experts have proven that the human brain continues to grow well into adulthood, maintaining optimum levels of neural activity is especially important in young people as their neurological cells develop into the brains they will carry as adults. Increased physical activity has been shown repeatedly to help counter the detrimental effects of ADHD. In light of these new, more specific findings, advocates for physical education in our schools have intensified their campaigns, arguing persuasively that periods of regular exercise will do more to raise flagging test scores than repeated memorization drills.

Exercise is equally important to the elderly, as experiments showed that the brains of aging lab rats who spent extended periods on their running wheels developed less of the plaque that surrounds the brains of those suffering from a condition very similar to Alzheimer's. Maintaining a healthy body in one's youth is not enough, as continued exercise is necessary to heighten awareness and minimize the negative effects of age. For all who still resist the call to work out, the evidence in its favor will only continue to build. If they find themselves lacking in motivation, competitive sports may provide that link. Those working within serious time constraints can find any number of brief and effective workouts through trainers or related literature. The practice does require significant amounts of time and physical effort, but uncertainty about its physical and mental benefits is no longer a valid excuse for inaction.

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