In a new study, researchers from Australia’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine at Western Sydney University and the Division of Psychology and Mental Health at the University of Manchester in the UK examined the effects of aerobic exercise on the brain. Their study showed that aerobic exercise increased the size of the left region of the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory, verbal learning and other cognitive functions.

On average, the brain shrinks by 5% every decade after the age of 40. The study shows that aerobic exercise can diminish brain shrinkage and neural atrophy.

The researchers reviewed 14 clinical trials, examining the brain scans of 737 people before and after aerobic exercise or in control conditions.

The study group ranged in age from 24 to 76 years old, with a median age of 66, and included a mixture of healthy participants, participants suffering from mild cognitive conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and participants clinically diagnosed with depression, schizophrenia or other mental illness.

The researchers examined the effects of aerobic exercises like walking, running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike. Interventions ranged from three to 24 months with a range of 2-5 sessions per week.

Joseph Firth, lead author of the study, indicated that their findings provide clear evidence that exercise can contribute to brain health. “When you exercise you produce a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may help to prevent age-related decline by reducing the deterioration of the brain,” Firth said.

“Our data showed that, rather than actually increasing the size of the hippocampus per se, the main ‘brain benefits’ are due to aerobic exercise slowing down the deterioration in brain size. In other words, exercise can be seen as a maintenance program for the brain.”

The study findings were published in the journal NeuroImage.


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