Can Exercise Stop Your Brain from Shrinking

As we head into the new year many people will look to get into better shape. After all, that is one of the top New Year’s Resolutions made every year.  And if the latest research has anything to say about it cardiorespiratory exercise might offer the best benefit to brain health.

The new German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases study provides evidence that physical activity improve circulatory and respiratory function—oxygen supply—which can affect brain health. In particular, the study advises that this type of exercise can improve gray matter and total brain volume.  In other words, it can prevent brain shrinkage.

Every country in the world is facing a growing community of older adults. This means that the global population is getting older and we need to be better at preserving brain health. Fortunately, this new study—which involved 2,103 adults in Germany between the ages of 21 and 84—analyzed cardiorespiratory fitness by measuring peak oxygen uptake, anaerobic oxygen uptake threshold, and maximal power output.  

The research also observed MRI brain data with adjustments for age, sex, smoking, body weight, education, glycated hemoglobin level, intracranial volume, and systolic blood pressure.  Taking all this into account, the researchers found that a boost in peak oxygen uptake is strongly associated with increased gray matter volume.

Lead study author Ronald Petersen MD, PhD “This provides indirect evidence that aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on cognitive function in addition to physical condition.”

The Mayo Clinic neurologist goes on to note that the results of this study show demonstrate benefit to adults of any age.  As a matter of fact, the study provides excellent evidence for the value of exercise in the mid-life years, particularly in terms of the positive effects exercise will have on the brain much later in life.

At the end of the day, the study authors conclude, “Cardiorespiratory fitness was positively associated with gray matter volume, total brain volume, and specific gray matter and white matter clusters in brain areas not primarily involved in movement processing. The results of this study support the hypothesis that higher CRF is associated with larger brain volumes in several brain regions that are not primarily connected to motor-related functions.”