The Pilot News

Exercise and brain power


Q: Six months ago, I started exercising regularly. I am 52 and, though it might not have turned me into a hunk yet, it seems to be making me smarter -- well, at least a bit sharper and less forgetful. Is that possible? -Marc W., Philadelph­ia

A: Good for you. Regular exercise at any age has enormous benefits for your whole body including the heart, liver, lungs, digestion and endocrine system (that’s hormones such as cortisol, insulin, testostero­ne and neurotrans­mitters). But no benefit is more important than the connection between aerobic fitness and cognition.

Studies have shown that when you exercise regularly, you have better mental health (less depression), stronger decision-making skills (executive function), and are less prone to dementia. You also have better neural function and efficiency because exercise-increased blood flow ups “food delivery” of glucose and lipids to the brain and increases available oxygen. And the more you exercise, the more physical and cognitive reserves (that is, “backup”) you build up.

Now a new study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise has demonstrat­ed that the link between aerobics and protection of cognition happens to a large degree because of the brain neurotrans­mitter dopamine. It is produced when you exercise and plays a central role in brain function and cognition. One study shows an hour of yoga six days a week ups dopamine levels. Another study says that exercise reduces levels of hormones (cortisol) that are produced by emotional, brain-numbing stress, even as the workout stresses your body physically. Neat trick!

So aim for 300 minutes of physical activity weekly, including 20 minutes of aerobics/ cardio three times weekly. And if you want to reinforce the brain benefits of exercise -- up your nutrition. Deficienci­es in iron, niacin, folate and vitamin B6 may reduce dopamine levels and affect your brain and emotions. Visit the National Institutes of Health’s website at and research which foods contain those nutrients.

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