Node Smith, ND
Does your Brain get Bigger with Exercise?
A recent study says that your hippocampus does.1 The hippocampus is a portion of the limbic system, located within the medial temporal lobe. The limbic system, as a whole, is principal in the regulation of emotions, however, the hippocampus is mainly thought to be associated with memory, especially long-term memory. The hippocampus is also involved in spatial navigation. Damage to the hippocampus can lead to memory loss, and it is one of the first portions of the brain which is affected in Alzheimer’s disease.
Australian Study Concludes Exercise May Improve Memory Function and Brain Health
An Australian study concluded that aerobic exercise may improve memory function and brain health, and actually increases the size of the hippocampus. Brain health decreases with age, and it is estimated that 5 percent brain shrinkage occurs every decade of life after age 40. However, studies on mice have shown that exercise reverses this process in the hippocampus. This current study shows the same thing in humans.
Brain Scans Studied Before and After Aerobic Exercise
The research looked at 737 participants involved in a total of 14 clinical trials. Brain scans before and after an aerobic exercise program were analyzed. The participants included healthy adults as well as individuals with mild cognitive impairment, like Alzheimer’s, and even individuals with mental illness. Ages ranged from 24 to 76 years (66 average). The length of aerobic exercise interventions ranged from three to 24 months (2-5 sessions per week).
Results of the Study
The results of the study concluded that the exercise had no effect on total hippocampal volume, however it did show significant increases in the size of the left region of the hippocampus. It is thought that aerobic exercise is not actually increasing the size, rather than decreasing the amount of deterioration that “should” be seen, or is seen in non-exercising adults.
It is known that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is produced during exercise, and thought that this aids in the prevention of age-related cognitive decline associated with exercise.
- Firth J, Stubbs B, Vancampfort D, et al. Effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampal volume in humans: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neuroimage. 2017;166:230-238.
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Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.