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Link between active bodies and healthy brains

Published: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

We all know that exercise is good for our body, but there are many studies that indicate it is also good for our brain. One recent study found that older adults who were the most active every day had only half the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease as those with the least amount of daily activity. And exercise protects against other forms of dementia as well. 

What is the connection between exercise and brain health? According to brain experts there is a protein in our body that helps to protect our brain cells from damage. Physical activity boosts the production of that protein. The more of the protein that is produced, the more protection you have from degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

While any type of exercise will have some benefit for the brain, the type of workout that seems to be most effective combines learning (experts call this skill acquisition) and aerobic exercise. This type of exercise stimulates your senses and engages your brain at the same time. Examples of this might be as simple as learning to bounce a tennis ball or kick a pebble back and forth while you walk. Or you could practice simple math while walking. Try adding by twos each time your left foot hits the pavement, for example, and then switch to adding by threes on the left foot.

Another way to get this effect is by trying new activities or sports that engage the learning part of your brain along with using your body in different ways. For example, if you normally walk for exercise, you might consider taking a dance class. If you usually train with weights, you might consider a yoga, tai chi or martial arts class. 

This has implications for childhood education as well. As an example, I recently saw a program in which home-schooled children practiced their multiplication tables while tossing a ball to each other in a random pattern. 

In addition to protecting our brains from degenerative diseases, studies show that exercise might even create new brain cells. Other potential brain benefits include increased creativity and better mood.  

And did you know that your brain burns calories? In fact, your brain may use more calories than many of the other cells in your body because it is always working – another good reason to engage both your body and your mind.

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