Health and Medicine Neuroscience

Distinct Brain Benefits Gained by Exercise – Both Mental and Physical

exercise brain

Did you know that, starting in our 20s, we could lose one to two percent in global brain blood flow every decade? But there is hope. A new study has shown that cognitive training can result in an 8 percent increase in brain blood flow. As brain blood flow is linked to neural health, this is good news.

The study was done at Center for BrainHealth Research at The University of Texas in Dallas and the results published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth, and a professor at Dee Wyly Distinguished University was the study’s lead author. She notes that many adults experience significant age-related changes in the brain. These changes are slow and continuous and Chapman specifically excluded adults with dementia. The areas of the brain most affected are memory and executive function, such as problem solving and planning.

For the study, 36 sedentary adults aged between 56 and 75 were randomly divided into two groups – One group did physical training while the other focused on cognitive training. The training took place over 12 weeks with three hours of training scheduled per week. Before, during and after each training session, three sets of data was taken:

  1. MRI
  2. Physiological
  3. Neurocognitive

The physical training group participated in three, 60-minute sessions per week that started with five minutes of warmup and ended with the same timespan for cooldown. They then either cycled on a stationary bike or walked on a treadmill for 50 minutes. The pace of the exercise was set to   maintain 50-75 percent of maximum heart rate.

The cognitive group participated in a manualized brain training developed at the Center for BrainHealth. The training is dubbed SMART which stands for Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training. This training focusses on three executive functions:

  1. Innovation – Encouraging problem solving, fluid thinking and diverse perspective taking.
  2. Strategic attention – Focused on prioritizing brain resources.
  3. Integrative reasoning – Synthesizing information at a deeper level.

The group involved in aerobic exercise showed increases in immediate and delayed memory performance. These increases were not seen in the group doing cognitive training. This is the first study that compares cerebrovascular reactivity and cerebral blood flow data obtained from MRI readings. On the other hand, the cognitive training group demonstrated an increase of close to eight percent in global brain flow as well as positive changes in executive brain function compared to the group who participated in the exercise program.

Chapman believes the brain networks involved in staying focused on a goal was engaged by the reasoning training and this triggered neural plasticity.  In this case, the goal was to adapt to new information, such as feedback from a collaborator, while writing a brief business proposal at the same time. Although the aerobic exercise group did not show significant global blood flow gains, those with improved memory performance showed high cerebral blood flow in the bilateral hippocampi. This area of the brain supports memory function and is principally vulnerable to dementia and aging.

Dr. Mark D’Esposito, professor of neuroscience and psychology, notes that although most people notice memory changes as they get older and would like a better memory, executive functions such as the ability to synthesize information  and decision-making are even more important but are often taken for granted.

Both aerobic activity and reasoning training are valuable tools that boosts your brain in different ways, although they do not return equal benefits. Strategy-based programs are better at giving us a mental edge in daily life. This study shows that brain health in healthy adults can be accelerated by adopting lifestyle habits that exercise both the body and the mind.

The results of the study are encouraging and emphasize the need for a multifaceted approach when it comes to brain health. Future trials will have to be undertaken to develop and test neuroprotective programs that combine physical and cognitive training protocols to maximize the health returns both for early and later life.