Why Exercise Is Good For Your Brain


Exer­cise builds your mus­cles, and that’s a good thing.  You need mus­cle mass to opti­mize your metab­o­lism, bal­ance your hor­mones, and main­tain good health.

But exer­cise should also be designed to improve your brain.

In my recent lec­ture for the Prince­ton Adult School, I described two dif­fer­ent aspects of exer­cise.  One aspect of exer­cise I called phys­i­o­log­i­cal.  That refers to the fact that exer­cise leads to quan­tifi­able gains in mus­cle bulk, car­diac strength, and lung capac­i­ty.  Vital health goals.

A sec­ond aspect of exer­cise I called move­ment skill devel­op­ment.  Move­ment skill devel­op­ment means learn­ing some­thing new: the fox trot, fly fish­ing, knit­ting, t’ai ch’i, or what­ev­er.

I’ve been a devo­tee of move­ment skill devel­op­ment ever since my days study­ing dance.  I could feel in my bones (and ner­vous sys­tem) that there was some­thing impor­tant about it.  Some­thing impor­tant that was being missed by gen­er­a­tions of fit­ness gurus going back to Jane Fon­da.  As a doc­tor of chi­ro­prac­tic, I’ve tried to inspire my patients to learn some­thing new about their bod­ies and the way they move.  There’s a lot more to exer­cise than mind­less­ly tick­ing off the min­utes on the tread­mill.

Now sci­en­tif­ic research is catch­ing up in its under­stand­ing of the val­ue of move­ment skill devel­op­ment.

One recent study looked at cog­ni­tive health (or its oppo­site – demen­tia) in seniors who exer­cised.

Any­one can guess that the seniors who exer­cised were less like­ly to expe­ri­ence cog­ni­tive decline than senior slack­ers.  But, sur­pris­ing­ly, main­tain­ing men­tal sharp­ness did not cor­re­late with mus­cle strength.  Seniors with loss of mus­cle mass (sar­cope­nia) were not more like­ly to expe­ri­ence demen­tia than seniors who had main­tained good mus­cle mass.

The ben­e­fits of exer­cise weren’t based on brute mus­cle pow­er – they were occur­ring through an entire­ly dif­fer­ent mech­a­nism.

The authors of the study — being pru­dent, cau­tious sci­en­tists — declined to spec­u­late about the oth­er rea­sons that exer­cise could main­tain men­tal sharp­ness.  But that doesn’t stop me from spec­u­lat­ing.  It was move­ment skills devel­op­ment – the cog­ni­tive com­po­nent of exer­cise – that pro­tect­ed people’s brains.

Here’s anoth­er exam­ple.  Most inves­ti­ga­tors are now con­vinced that study­ing t’ai ch’i reduces the chance of falling.  Why?  One of my col­leagues, a physi­a­trist who’s an expert on osteo­poro­sis and fragili­ty frac­tures, sug­gests it’s because a t’ai ch’i stu­dent repeat­ed­ly shifts the weight from one foot to the oth­er while lift­ing the leg knee-high or high­er.  That sounds like an impor­tant move­ment skill to prac­tice – but not only because it builds mus­cle strength in spe­cif­ic mus­cle groups.  It’s a nov­el brain chal­lenge too.



Deepen Your Body of Knowledge

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About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website, askdrlavine.com, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at drlavine@yourbodyofknowledge.com or at 212-400-9663.

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