Many of us are doing crosswords, soduko or whatever kind of training to keep mentally in shape. However, it seems that at least some of the time we would be better off putting on our running shoes and start walking or running. According to a number of studies, mental health is strengthened by physical training. There are today also indications that running can delay the onset of degenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s (see here).
So although you can’t train your brain like a muscle — it doesn’t work that way — training what you normally think of as physical exercise actually helps your brain, too. A number of studies have focused on the effects on cognition and other behavioural measures, while more recent studies also focus on direct measurable effects on the brain’s structure and function. For example, in a study by Colcombe et al. (2003) physical exercise was found to reduce age-related brain decline. This can be shown both for gray and white matter:
LEFT: regions that are affected — i.e. shrink — during ageing. RIGHT: regions that show preservation as a function of better cardiovascular health (i.e. training).
So it should be a matter of just going out there and start running, right? Not so, according to a recent review by Kiraly and Kiraly. Reviewing the literature on mammalian and human research on this topic, the authors first note factors that have negative effects on the brain:
The cascade of cellular damages from oxidative stress, nitrosative stress and gluco-corticoid effects are cumulative and age related. (…) Lack of exercise and motility restrictions are associated with increased vulnerability from oxidative stress, nitrosative stress and glucocorticoid excesses, all of which precede amyloid deposition and are fundamental in the cascade of events resulting in neuronal degradation, especially in the hippocampi.
Contary to this, exercise has a postive influence on the brain:
Exercise training reduces oxidative stress, nitro-sative stress and improves neuroendocrine autoregulation which counteracts damages from stress- and age-related neuronal degeneration, brain ischemia and traumatic brain injury. People prone to chronic distress, brain ischemia, brain trauma, and the aged are at increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Exercise training may be a major protective factor but without clinical guidelines, its prescription and success with treatment adherence remain elusive.
I find that very last part very interesting. It’s obviously not just going out there and start running. You’d better do your training properly, and possibly with the help from a professional trainer.