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Fit body for a fit mind

September 8, 2005 By Jennifer Wild This article courtesy of Nature News.

Aerobic exercise is the best way to keep your memory healthy.

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Want to keep your wits about you until a ripe old age? Scientists say that aerobics does more than mental exercise to keep your brain fit.

Regularly sweating it out on the squash court is like a fertilizer for brain cells, they say. Exercise for the body helps new brain cells to sprout and make more connections, which in turn helps to preserve the frontal lobes, the area of the brain where ageing is most noticeable.

Exercise is a sort of wonder drug that makes you more mentally agile.
Ian Robertson
University of Dublin
To find the most important ingredient in the recipe for mental fitness, Ian Robertson at the University of Dublin reviewed the past ten years of research in the field. He announced his results at this year's British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Dublin on 7 September.

Robertson found evidence that good nutrition, education, and positive thinking all help to keep your brain young. But the most important factor is aerobics, he concludes. "It has remarkable beneficial effects on the structure and function of the brain."

Active ingredient

One study in his review looked at a group of over-60s who engaged in "intense walking" for four months, and compared them with another group who stretched instead. The cardio folk were sharper, their memory and attention improved, compared with the stretching group.

Exercise helps your brain to make a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which creates brain cells and connections. New capillaries also grow with exercise, nourishing these cells and connections that would otherwise wither away under the pressure of ageing.

"In the over-50s," says Robertson, "exercise is a sort of wonder drug that makes you more mentally agile, less forgetful and delays the loss of sharpness."

Skilled labour

Some have hypothesized that exercise is helpful because it involves learning new motor skills, a mental challenge that gives your brain a work out.

But Robertson counters that this would result in growth specifically in the motor areas of the brain, and that people learning new stretches would gain the same benefit as those learning new aerobic routines. Neither seems to be the case.

It is true, however, that mental exercise also helps the brain to stay sharp. Robertson recommends using your mind as much as possible and learning to link information to images or sounds in order to strengthen your memory.

He also advises not thinking about yourself with adjectives such as 'grey' and 'old', focusing instead on positive ones such as 'healthy' and 'active'. Studies have shown that simply thinking about these words can affect how someone behaves, changing how quickly they walk, for example.

Robertson's team plans to work out an optimum mixture of mental and physical exercises to keep minds sharp.


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