Is Physical Activity the Key to a Healthier Brain?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 22, 2015)  In his "Conduct of Life" address in 1873, British statesman Edward Stanley advised “Those who think they have not time for bodily exercise will sooner or later have to find time for illness.”

Regular exercise has long been linked to stress reduction, improvement in mood, and the prevention or delay of disease and disability. Yet despite the well-known health-related benefits associated with physical activity, many of us still find it difficult to exercise on a regular basis. We say we are too tired, or too busy.  

When we think of the benefits of exercise, we often focus on weight loss and weight management. But regular exercise also has a positive effect on arguably the most important organ in the body –— the brain. Quite simply, if your brain is not functioning well, the rest of your body will not function well.

Recent research findings at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences may provide another reason to jump in the pool, pound the pavement, or push the pedals this summer.

We recently discovered that older adults who are aerobically fit have better and stronger connections between some brain regions. These findings build on previous evidence demonstrating beneficial effects of exercise and aerobic fitness on the volume of the brain’s “gray matter” (nerve cells) in healthy older adults. We have added to this evidence by demonstrating that the wires (axons) connecting these nerve cells, commonly referred to as “white matter,” appear to be more structurally coherent in adults who exercise regularly. Many cognitive abilities, such as being able to flexibly switch attention between tasks, have been linked to the structural makeup of these wires.

Building on these findings is a recently completed UK study demonstrating a link between heart function, aerobic fitness, and blood flow to regions of the brain that are susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease. The findings are promising, and in order for UK to further establish these relationships, we need to show that aerobic training is the primary contributor to increased blood flow to these regions.

We are now recruiting a group of volunteers, 60 to 75 years old, who are willing to participate in an individualized training program to improve aerobic fitness. Participants will receive 51 training sessions over the course of 17 weeks, which will also include free assessments of heart health, bone density, body composition, and brain function.

If you are interested in participating, please contact Barbara Martin or Nathan Johnson at 859-323-0494 or to find out if you qualify.

Nathan F. Johnson, PT, DPT, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Division of Physical Therapy at the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences. His research findings are sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Center for Clinical Translational Science (CCTS).

This column appeared in the June 21, 2015 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.