01.03.2006

On Your Bike Smartypants - by Jeremy Hill

Is your memory starting to fail you on a regular basis?Do you tend to avoid complex problems, unfamiliar wordsor anything that makes you think outside your square?When was the last time you actively set out to learn somethingnew? I sense a few of you are getting uneasy about now,suspecting that I am going to start challenging you totake up some fun new mathematics game, or encourage youto start learning another language. Well, I'm not. Notyet, anyway.
My advice for you today is a whole neural branch awayfrom scary brain exercises, and it comes with a terrificbonus package of goodies. Well actually, the answer maywell be just as scary as maths and linguistics for manyof you - I'm talking about... exercise!

How would you like to be a whole lot smarter, with a significantlyimproved potential for learning, a much faster brain reactiontime and a memory that is up to 30% better? What if Ithrew in a bonus package of being happier, slimmer, bettermuscled, and even sexier than your already sexy self anda heck of a lot healthier? I had you at smarter didn'tI - who doesn't want to squeeze a bit more out of theirgrey matter?

It just so happens that you can easily glean all of thesebenefits, simply by getting regular exercise.

Most of the reasons we are encouraged to get out and getactive are well known these days, yet sadly they remainwidely ignored. Perhaps with a greater understanding ofthe significant benefits that exercise confers to thehealth, structure and function of our brains, we may yetbe able to get active and become smarter to boot.

We may even be able to kiss goodbye forever the nerdycliché of a striking intellect being teamed witha scrawny and underdeveloped or obese body, as our brightestand best start hitting the gym and getting buffed, allin the name of solving their latest equation with theirexercise-enhanced brain power.

Even the minimal addition to a sedentary person's lifestyleof three 30 minute walks a week has been shown to providea 15% increase to important cognitive functions such aslearning, concentration and abstract reasoning. Now that'sa heck of a benefit for such a minimal effort.

Researchers say the benefits may be even more significantfor the elderly, whose risk of dementia is known to doubleevery five years from the age of 65 years. It has longbeen recognised that elderly folk who have stayed activethroughout their life tend to maintain better cognitivefunction than their less active peers, but now the researchis showing just how good exercise can be for the brainand that it is never too late to start actually growingnew neurons in old brains. Exercising at least three timesa week has been shown to reduce the development of dementiaand Alzheimer's disease in such individuals by 38%, accordingto a recent study of 1740 fit and healthy people withno initial cognitive problems. The researchers speculatedthat less healthy individuals would have most likely gleanedeven greater benefits.

Yes, that's right, you read correctly - it is possibleto stimulate the growth of new brain cells in fully matureindividuals, and exercise just happens to be one of thebest ways of stimulating such growth.

Given that diseases of cognitive decline such as generaldementia and Alzheimer's are rapidly becoming one of Australia'smost wide reaching health problems, any approach thatcan offer some relief should be taken on wholeheartedly.

The new neurons are only a part of the reason that exercisehelps our brains. The improved circulation provides abetter supply of nutrients and oxygen to your energy-hungrybrain and exercise seems to encourage another benefitto the brain - less oxidation. Free radicals in the bodycause oxidative damage which is associated with all degenerativeconditions of the body, including Alzheimer's and dementia.Such damage however, has been shown to be less in regularexercisers. And still the benefits come, with exercisershaving less of a build up throughout their brains of thebeta-amyloid proteins that are associated with Alzheimer's.

The benefits are not just for the ageing either. In thisage of video games and junk food, kids are becoming farless active and while their waists expand, their brainsmay not. Studies have shown that simply getting kids toexercise more days than not through the week can providea marked boost to their grades.

So, if you want a better brain, make daily exercise ahuge priority in your life and allow time for it everyday. And just to be sure, you might want to do some crosswords,learn an instrument, learn another language, drink greentea, eat oily fish, lecithin and blueberries, learn memorytricks such as word association, pay attention, get enoughsleep, take your folate and load up on antioxidants -just to be sure.

Good Health, Jeremy Hill.
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