Stay In Motion: Cardio Exercises Strengthen Brain Health, Slow Cognitive Decline

ROCHESTER, Minn. — If you’ve ever spoken with an avid jogger or cardio-enthusiast, they probably told you how much better they feel after getting their blood flowing with a little exercise. There’s no doubt that getting in motion, whether that be running, biking, or simply taking a brisk walk, is good for the body, but now a new set of research finds it can also greatly benefit our minds as well.

A study by scientists at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases concludes that cardiorespiratory exercise is linked to brain health, particularly in reference to gray matter and total volume — two areas of the brain involved in cognitive decline and aging.

The human brain is made of gray matter and white matter. Gray matter is the cell bodies themselves that make up the brain, while white matter is made of filaments extending from the cell bodies. The more skills and abilities an individual learns, the more gray matter present in their brain. During this study, researchers discovered that increases in a person’s peak oxygen uptake were strongly associated with more gray matter volume.

The study examined 2,013 adults from two independent groups in northeastern Germany. The participants were examined in phases between 1997 and 2012. The researchers measured cardiorespiratory fitness using peak oxygen uptake readings, and other common standards, while participants used a stationary bike. Researchers also took MRIs of participants’ brains.

The subsequent results showed that cardiorespiratory exercise could improve brain health and decelerate gray matter volume decline.

The most striking feature of this study, according to first author Dr. Ronald Petersen, is the suggestion that exercise influences brain areas associated with cognition, not just motor function.

“This provides indirect evidence that aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on cognitive function in addition to physical conditioning,” Dr. Petersen says in a media release. “Another important feature of the study is that these results may apply to older adults, as well. There is good evidence for the value of exercise in midlife, but it is encouraging that there can be positive effects on the brain in later life as well.”

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Higher gray matter volume due to cardiorespiratory activity indicates that exercising could have a preventative effect on some cognitive changes involved in the aging process, including those related to Alzheimer’s disease. However, the researchers are still reluctant to declare any definitive cardiorespiratory fitness correlations regarding Alzheimer’s.

“This is another piece of the puzzle showing physical activity and physical fitness is protective against aging-related cognitive decline,” says editorial co-author Dr. Michael Joyner, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist and physiologist. “There’s already good epidemiological evidence for this, as well as emerging data showing that physical activity and fitness are associated with improved brain blood vessel function. This paper is important because of the volumetric data showing an effect on brain structure.”

More extensive long-term research projects on this topic will be necessary to confirm these findings.

“Nevertheless, these data are encouraging,” says Clifford Jack Jr., M.D., a Mayo Clinic neuro-radiologist and co-author. “The findings regarding cardiorespiratory fitness and certain brain structures are unique.”

The study is published in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

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