Keep Your Residents Running: Consistent Exercise Key to Healthy Brain, Says Study

Consistent resident exercise is critical to brain health, according to a recent study of the brains of middle-aged adults conducted at the University of Maryland.

The researchers studied a group of physically fit adults between the ages of 50 and 80. They wanted to answer an understudied question: what happens to the brain when a fit adult stops exercising, even if only for 10 days?

To make a long research paper short, the authors found that stopping exercise for only 10 days led to decreased blood flow to the brain — something that has implications for the cognitive health of older adults, but which warrants more research before any concrete conclusions can be made.

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J. Carson Smith, Ph.D., and colleagues examined blood flow to the brain in healthy, physically fit adults aged 50 to 80 years before and after a 10-day period during which they stopped all exercise. Using brain imaging techniques, they discovered a significant decrease in blood flow to several brain regions, including the hippocampus, after the study subjects stopped regularly exercising.

“We know that the hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory and is one of the first brain regions to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” said Smith, an associate professor of kinesiology and lead author of the study, which is published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. “In rodents, the hippocampus responds to exercise training by increasing the growth of new blood vessels and new neurons, and in older people, exercise can help protect the hippocampus from shrinking. So, it is significant that people who stopped exercising for only 10 days showed a decrease in brain blood flow in brain regions that are important for maintaining brain health.”

Blood flow to eight regions of the brain was affected by the exercise break. They including the areas of the left and right hippocampus and several regions known to be part of the brain’s “default mode network” — a neural network known to deteriorate quickly with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, Smith said.

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