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November 11, 2011 | Fitnovatives Blog

Does Exercise Grow New Brain Cells?

studying for exam

“I’d like to tone up, lose some weight, get in shape, and get my beach body” are common goals personal trainers hear from clients, but what if a client said, “I’d like to grow some more brain cells”?

This may seem outlandish, but studies have demonstrated that vigorous exercise fuels neurogenesis — the creation of new brain cells — and slows neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Similar to how exercise grows muscle cells by creating new mitochondria (organelles that give fuel to most cellular activity) near the nucleus, exercise boosts brain cells.

While it’s unlikely a client would actually say they wanted to grow new brain cells, the unrivaled, unmatched and fearless fitness professional on the edge of the latest research and contemporary thinking would know exactly how to respond.

An often-quoted study at the University of South Carolina is worth briefly noting. Two groups of mice were assigned to either run on a treadmill for an hour a day or lead more sedentary lifestyles without such exercise during a two-month period. What they found in the brains was very interesting: The group that exercised had significantly greater mitochondrial development in their brains than the sedentary mice did, demonstrating that exercise can induce mitochondrial biogenesis in more than muscle — at least in mice.

And a study at the National Cheng Jung University in Taiwan found that when mice were allowed to run freely compared to being forced to run harder than they might otherwise, the findings were again indicative of noteworthy brain changes. Those racing harder had molecular changes in more areas of the brain than those allowed to run at their own comfortable pace. The researchers concluded that different forms of exercise led to different neuroplasticity changes in mice.

The University of Illinois did a study on humans that demonstrated similar findings.  They compared brisk walking with stretching on tests of cognition. Brisk walking, with its increase in blood flow, induced a greater molecular cascade and therefore improved test scores. 

Other studies on humans have demonstrated that when aerobically trained subjects were compared with age-matched control groups of subjects who were either doing strength and flexibility exercise or were not engaged in exercise, the aerobically trained group demonstrate significantly advanced central cerebral metabolic activity and improvement on neuropsychological tests.

The 1972 foundational work of Goodwin, McClowskey and Matthews, referenced in the ACE Personal Trainer Manual, pages 452-453, describe some of the understanding of how sensory receptors and the central nervous system interact in humans. This work is important to recognizing how growth factors are carried from the body’s periphery to the brain to initiate the brain’s growth factor cascades that exercise induces.

And this helps forward-thinking, differentiated and unique fitness professionals be better able to discuss how new neurons and brain connections are, in fact, created through vigorous exercise.

It has been found that not only is exercise helpful in promoting the brain’s growth, but in slowing neurodegenerative diseases (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) and reducing peripheral risk factors for cognitive decline as well. Remember the mice? Research data suggests that mitochondrial deficits play a role in the development of these diseases, so exercise is beneficial to overall neurological health.

Over and over again, the research, particularly when focused on the hippocampus area of the brain, demonstrates that exercise reduces diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease that can combine to cause brain impairment and forms of neurodegeneration.

Aerobic exercise, in particular, assists in the regulation of growth factors and the reduction of peripheral and central risk factors furthering successful brain functioning, improving learning and memory, delaying age-related cognitive decline, playing a role in regulating mood disorders, and helping ensure overall wellbeing.

So much for just toning up, losing a few pounds and getting six pack — grow new brain cells as well! It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to discover exercise benefits more than just muscles — it takes a leading edge, crisp thinking, and distinguished fitness professional.

By Michael Mantell
Dr. Michael Mantell

Michael Mantell earned his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania and his M.S. at Hahnemann Medical College, here he wrote his thesis on obesity. He’s served as the Chief Psychologist of Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and the Chief Psychologist for the San Diego Police Department. He provides breakthrough strategies to help business leaders, athletes, individuals and families create healthy, fit and happy trajectories in life. He is the Senior Consultant for Behavioral Sciences for ACE, an international behavior science fitness presenter, an Advisor to numerous companies and fitness organizations, on the Sports Medicine team of The Sporting Club of San Diego and is featured in many international media outlets. He is listed in the 2013 “The 100 Most Influential People in Health and Fitness.”

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