Why choosing the right workout could fine-tune your brain

2 Sep

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28001-why-choosing-the-right-workout-could-fine-tune-your-brain/
19 August 2015

Teal Burrell is a science writer based in Washington DC.
Whether you need to focus for an exam, tap into your creativity, or
curb cravings, there’s a type of exercise that could help

PUMPING iron to sculpt your biceps. Yoga poses to stretch and relax.
Running to whittle your waistline and get fit fast. There are loads
of reasons why it’s smart to exercise, and most of us are familiar
with the menu of options and how each can shape and benefit your
body.

But we are discovering that there are numerous ways in which
exercise makes you smart too. Many of its effects have been going
unnoticed, but if you were to peer inside the heads of people who
like to keep active, you’d see that different exercises strengthen,
sculpt and shape the brain in myriad ways.

That the brains of exercisers look different to those of their more
sedentary counterparts is, in itself, not new. We have been hearing
for years that exercise is medicine for the mind, especially aerobic
exercise. Physical fitness has been shown to help with the cognitive
decline associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and
depression, and we know this is at least in part because getting
your blood pumping brings more oxygen, growth factors, hormones and
nutrients to your brain, leading it – like your muscles, lungs and
heart – to grow stronger and more efficient.

But a new chapter is beginning in our understanding of the influence
of physical exercise on cognition. Researchers are starting to find
more specific effects related to different kinds of exercise.

They are looking beyond the standard recommendation of 30 minutes of
moderate, aerobic exercise a day, for the sake of your brain. Are
there benefits to going slower or faster? To lifting weights, or
performing sun salutations? Whether you want a boost in focus for an
exam, find it hard to relax or are keen to quit smoking, there’s a
prescription for you.

The first clue that exercise affects the brain came from rodent
studies 15 years ago, which showed that allowing mice access to a
running wheel led to a boost in neuron formation in their
hippocampi, areas of the brain essential for memory. That’s because
exercise causes hippocampal neurons to pump out a protein called
brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth
of new neurons. The mice showed improvements in memory that allowed
them to navigate mazes better.

The findings were soon translated to humans. Older adults who did
aerobic exercise three times a week for a year also grew larger
hippocampi and performed better in memory tests. Those with the
highest levels of BDNF in their blood had the biggest increases in
this brain region.

The idea that exercise helps to improve memory has been especially
welcome given that the search for effective treatments for cognitive
decline has been slow in progress. And it now seems that aerobic
exercise such as running and cycling may help stave off Alzheimer’s
disease and other forms of dementia.

As the evidence for aerobic exercise accumulated, Teresa Liu-Ambrose
at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, began to
wonder about other types of exercise. She has been looking for ways
to halt dementia in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a
population of adults known to be at increased risk of developing
dementia, and was especially interested in strength training, which
has in recent years been added to US and UK government
recommendations for physical activity.

To test the idea, Liu-Ambrose compared the effects of aerobic
exercise and strength training in 86 women with MCI. She measured
their impact on two abilities known to decline as the condition
progresses: memory and executive function – which encompasses
complex thought processes, including reasoning, planning,
problem-solving and multitasking (see diagram). The ultimate brain
workout

Twice a week for an hour, one group lifted weights, while the other
went for brisk walks quick enough that talking required effort. A
control group just stretched for an hour instead. After six months
of this, both walking and lifting weights had a positive effect on
spatial memory – the ability to remember one’s surroundings and
sense of place.

On top of that, each exercise had unique benefits. The group that
lifted weights saw significant improvements to executive function.
They also performed better in tests of associative memory, which is
used for things like linking someone’s name to their face. The
aerobic-exercise group saw improvements to verbal memory – the
ability to remember that word you had on the tip of your tongue.
Simply stretching had no effect on either memory or executive
function.

If aerobic exercise and strength training have distinct benefits, is
combining them the way to go? To address this, Willem Bossers of the
University of Groningen in the Netherlands split 109 people with
dementia into three groups. One group walked briskly four times a
week for 30 minutes; a combination group walked twice a week and
strength-trained twice a week for 30 minutes each; and a control
group did no exercise. After nine weeks, Bossers put the
participants through a battery of executive-function tests that
measured problem-solving, inhibition and processing speed. He found
that the combination group showed more improvement in executive
function than the aerobic-only or control groups. “It seems that,
for older adults, walking only is not enough. They need to do some
strength training,” he says.

Immediate attention boost

And these benefits extend to healthy adults too. In a year-long
trial of healthy older women, Liu-Ambrose found that lifting
weights, even just once a week, resulted in significant improvements
in tests of executive function. Balancing and toning exercises, on
the other hand, did not.

The combination of lifting weights and aerobic exercise might be
particularly powerful because strength training triggers the release
of a molecule called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a growth
hormone produced in the liver that is known to affect communication
between brain cells, and to promote the growth of new neurons and
blood vessels. On the other hand, aerobic exercise mainly boosts
BDNF, says Liu-Ambrose. In addition, Bossers says strength training
also decreases levels of homocysteine, an inflammatory molecule that
is increased in the brains of older adults with dementia. By
combining aerobic exercise with strength training, you’re getting a
more potent neurobiological cocktail. “You’re attacking the system
in two ways,” he says.

The studies so far haven’t addressed how long the effects last, but
preliminary findings suggest adults will have to keep exercising to
maintain the benefits.

Another approach is to start young, with findings that different
types of exercise affect a child’s mental capacity in a number of
ways. For example, if you want kids to focus for an hour – on a
maths test, say – the best bet is to let them have a quick run
around first. That’s according to studies that show a simple
20-minute walk has immediate effects on children’s attention,
executive function and achievement in mathematics and reading tests.
Letting kids sprint or skip about has the same effect. A brisk walk
can also help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
to focus, although again it’s not yet clear how long the effects
last.

These findings should be used to make decisions about the daily
school routine, says Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, who carried out some of the research. He agrees
with current recommendations that children get at least an hour of
exercise daily, but notes that it might be best spread over the
course of the day. Because purely aerobic exercise keeps kids
focused in the near term, giving them breaks to walk or move around
every 2 hours might be the best way to promote learning.

In contrast, exercise that is highly structured and focused on
specific skills, such as for a sport or to improve coordination,
hampers attention. A bunch of drills and rules may be too taxing for
children right before a test or a situation that requires sustained
focus.

Instead, these kinds of specific exercises seem to build up
attention span gradually over the long-term. In research yet to be
published, Maria Chiara Gallotta at the University of Rome in Italy
found that twice-weekly sessions of coordinative exercises, such as
basketball, volleyball or gymnastics practice, over the course of
five months helped children do better on tests that required
concentration and ignoring distractions.

The cerebellum – the finely wrinkled structure at the base of the
brain – has been long known to be involved in coordinating movement,
but is now recognised as having a role in attention as well.
Practising complicated movements activates the cerebellum and, by
working together with the frontal lobe, might improve attention in
the process.

Making sure children are physically fit can have lasting cognitive
benefits too, says Hillman. He has shown that children who are fit
have larger hippocampi and basal ganglia, and that they perform
better in attention tests. The basal ganglia are a group of
structures important for movement and goal-directed behaviour –
turning thoughts into actions. They interact with the prefrontal
cortex to influence attention, inhibition and executive control,
helping people to switch between two tasks, such as going from
sorting cards by colour to sorting cards by suit.

Hillman focuses on children aged 8 to 11 because areas like the
hippocampi and basal ganglia are still maturing, so intervening at a
young age can make a big difference. And even small gains in fitness
lead to measurable changes in the brain. In some of his studies,
Hillman has put kids on year-long after-school fitness programmes.
Many are overweight, and while they don’t lose much weight, their
brains do change. They’re going from being unfit to slightly less
unfit, says Hillman. “But we’re still finding benefits to brain
function and cognition.”

Adults too can reap brain gains from sporty challenges, says Claudia
Voelcker-Rehage at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany. Her
research on older adults showed an increase in basal ganglia volume
following coordination exercises that included balancing,
synchronising arm and leg movements, and manipulating props like
ropes and balls, but not from aerobic exercise.

Surf yourself smart

So why the added benefits? Such activities require an understanding
of where things are in space, so one explanation is that they
activate both the visual system and the parietal lobe, the part of
the brain that integrates sensory and spatial information.

Indeed, Voelcker-Rehage found that these types of exercise improved
visual-spatial processing, required for mentally approximating
distances – for instance, being able to assess whether you have time
to cross the street before an oncoming car reaches you – more than
aerobic exercise.

Another explanation comes from recent research by Tracy and Ross
Alloway, both at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
They found that just a couple of hours of activity of the type we
often enjoy during childhood, such as climbing trees, crawling along
a beam, or running barefoot, had a dramatic effect on working
memory.

This is the ability to hold on to information and manipulate it in
our minds at the same time. “It prioritises and processes
information, allowing us to ignore what is irrelevant and work with
what is important,” says Tracy Alloway. “Working memory influences
nearly everything that you do, from the classroom to the boardroom.”

So what is it about climbing trees or beam balancing that is so
beneficial? The researchers only found positive results when the
activities were a combination of two things. They needed to
challenge the sense of proprioception – the position and orientation
of the body – and also needed at least one other element, such as
navigation, calculation or locomotion. Basically, the advantages
came from exercises in which we need to balance and think at the
same time.

A good example is surfing, says Alloway. “In order to even catch a
wave, you have to pay so much attention to proprioceptive
information or you slip off your board; you also have to judge the
best position to be in order to catch it, as well as to determine if
another surfer has priority to catch a wave.” In their study, a
group who did yoga, which involves proprioception, but not much
mental reasoning, didn’t see improvements in working memory; nor did
a group merely learning new information in a lecture setting.

The results were the same for children and adults. “The adults in
our study showed improved working memory after just a couple of
hours of doing playground-type activities,” Alloway says.

The more we learn about the effects of exercise on the brain, the
more different types of benefits are emerging, extending beyond
cognition to changes in behaviour.

One of the most popular fitness trends of the last few years is
high-intensity interval training, which involves quick spurts of
all-out exercise. Its sheer toughness is claimed to provide the same
benefits as longer efforts in a fraction of the time.

These workouts might have an extra advantage: short bursts of
activity can help curb cravings. And although the tougher the
better, they don’t necessarily have to be gut-bustingly hard.

To test the effects of intensity training on appetites, Kym Guelfi
at the University of Western Australia in Perth invited overweight
men to come into the lab on four separate occasions. On three of the
visits, they spent 30 minutes on an exercise bike, but at different
intensities – a moderate, continuous pace; alternating between
intervals of high-intensity cycling for 1 minute followed by 4
minutes of moderate cycling; or alternating between very high
intensity, 15-second sprints followed by one really easy minute. The
fourth visit consisted of resting for the full 30 minutes.

Craving control

After the most intense intervals, the men ate less of the provided,
post-workout porridge and less food overall for the next day and a
half compared with days they cycled moderately or simply rested.

One explanation could be that the exercise reduced levels of the
“hunger hormone”, ghrelin. This is responsible for telling the part
of the brain that controls eating – the hypothalamus – when the
stomach is empty. When full, ghrelin production shuts off and hunger
wanes. Following the most intense intervals of exercise, ghrelin
levels were lowest.

If intensity isn’t your thing, you could also play with the
thermostat. Guelfi and others have shown that exercising in the heat
reduces appetite, while exercising in the cold increases it. Again,
hormones like ghrelin or a small protein called peptide YY could
well be at play.

And although vigorous activity might curb appetite and stall
cravings for longer, even moderate exercise can help. Adrian Taylor,
now at Plymouth University in the UK, has found that short bouts of
activity can reduce cravings for both sugary snacks and cigarettes.

In earlier work, Taylor found that chocolate lovers consumed almost
half as much of it after a brisk 15-minute walk as those that rested
quietly. For smokers, 10 minutes of moderate biking helped reduce
self-reported cravings. Smokers’ brains were also scanned while they
viewed images designed to trigger cravings. Following cycling –
despite staring at pictures of cigarettes after being deprived for
15 hours – the smokers’ brains appeared relaxed. Regions implicated
in addiction were less activated after exercise, as if the tempting
cigarette were no more meaningful than a pencil.

It’s conceivable that exercise merely distracts from the urge, but
studies show that cravings were reduced more following a short bike
ride than after another distracting task involving mental
arithmetic.

It’s still early days, and while some of the studies point at
possible mechanisms behind the benefits, other effects have yet to
be explored. One theory is that certain types of exercise increase
blood-vessel formation in the brain, and so keep it working well.
Exercises that activate specific regions may bring more blood to
those areas, possibly building new vasculature that improves its
functioning, whether it be for better memory or better
problem-solving. And doing something unfamiliar, like learning a
dance step or balancing on a beam, could also create novel
connections between neurons, Voelcker-Rehage suggests.

What is clear is that these effects can endure well into old age,
and it’s never too late to start. The hippocampus shrinks as we get
older, leading to the typical struggles with memory. But aerobic
exercise not only prevents this loss – it reverses it, slowing the
effects of getting older. Voelcker-Rehage has found that the brain
requires less energy to complete certain tasks after exercise. “We
would say that points to the fact that the brain is more efficient,”
she says. “It works more like a young brain.”

And in a study looking at yogis that had been practising for many
years, Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital found that some
brain regions were remarkably well preserved compared with those of
healthy controls that were matched for age, gender, education and
race. “The 50-year-old’s brain looked like a 25-year-old’s,” notes
Lazar.

If you’re still unsure which type of exercise to pick, there’s some
overlap between the different exercises and benefits, so
Liu-Ambrose’s suggestion is simple: “If you’re not active, do
something that you enjoy.” The best exercise is the kind that you’ll
actually do.

Feeling anxious? Say “om”

After a running injury, Sara Lazar decided to try yoga. She
initially rolled her eyes when the instructor touted the
mental-health benefits, but after a while she realised she felt
better able to handle difficult situations. She decided to look into
it at her lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, recruiting people
who were experiencing high levels of stress to attend yoga and
meditation classes for eight weeks. They also practised at home for
20 minutes a day. By the end, brain scans showed the volunteers’
amygdalae – brain regions that process fear and anxiety – had
shrunk, and participants reported feeling less stressed. While it’s
not yet clear why, yoga’s meditative aspect helps develop a calmer
outlook, which in turn reduces fear and anxiety, says Lazar.

Mind games for mobility

Moving the body can tone the mind (see main story), but could the
reverse also be true?

In other words, says Lindsay Nagamatsu at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, can a mental workout influence how the body
moves?

It is commonly assumed that everyday movements like walking and
maintaining posture are automatic. But even if we don’t consciously
think about them, they still require a level of attention.

This becomes more apparent as we age, and Nagamatsu’s earlier work
shows that older people whose minds tend to wander, or who score
poorly on attention tests, are more likely to take a fall.
Physiotherapy and exercise improve mobility, but Nagamatsu wondered
if a boost in attention span could too.

To test this, she used a computer game that is known to improve
attention and perception called Music Catch. She got people aged
between 60 and 80 to either play this game for a total of 15 hours
over five weeks, or another game known to help with working memory
and reasoning but not attention.

Before and after this she tested their walking speeds, a commonly
used indicator of someone’s risk of falling or being able to live
independently.

Nagamatsu showed that the Music Catch group ended up with
significant improvements in speed. The game seemed to be
particularly helpful because it required paying attention to
multiple things at once, as we do when walking while carrying on a
conversation, for example.

And walking speed might be important more generally: “It has also
been shown to predict morbidity and mortality in older adults,” says
Nagamatsu, “so I think that it’s an important outcome to try to
improve.”

Let loose for creativity

Daniel Schwartz practises what he preaches. During our interview he
is strolling through Stanford University’s leafy campus, an activity
that according to his research boosts divergent creativity –
otherwise known as thinking outside the box.

It is walking at a leisurely, everyday pace that does this, not at a
speed that would be aerobically challenging or make you out of
breath. In Schwartz’s study – which he thought of while out on a
walk – people came up with more unique uses for everyday objects
when walking outside or on a treadmill than when seated. He even
found that taking a walk has a stronger effect on creativity than
IQ. And people continued to be more creative afterwards, suggesting
a saunter before a brainstorming session is a good idea.

Or, if you’re more of a jitterbug, Peter Lovatt, a dance
psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, suggests you
“put on some music and start having a boogie”, and the key is to
keep it loose. After a session when people had to improvise dance
moves, they came up with more creative answers to problems than
after a structured dance session or no dancing at all. It seems that
creative movements – no matter how silly – lead to creative
problem-solving. In fact, the sillier the better: the trick is to
move in different ways. So if you tend to move your arms a lot when
you dance, focus on your hips instead. “Having a spontaneous wiggle
– without any pre-planning – is really good for divergent thinking,”
Lovatt says.

Eight ways exercise can boost your brain

Improve working memory – surfing, running, climbing trees
Boost creativity – dance or stroll
De-stress – yoga
Immediate attention – unstructured play
Long-term focus – play sports
Keep the brain young – running, yoga
Curb cravings – interval sprints
Problem-solving – lifting weights
_______________________________________________
tt mailing list
tt@postbiota.org
http://postbiota.org/mailman/listinfo/tt
Regards,

Valentin

Mobile cell phone: 786 521 3840
Skype phone: vale.spa.12
valespa12@gmail.com

http://twitter.com/ValeSpa12
https://valespa1.wordpress.com
http://valespa.blogspot.com/

*****
Please act locally and globally:
https://www.change.org/petitions
http://org.credoaction.com/petitions
http://www.avaaz.org/
https://takeaction.takepart.com

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: “Frank Forman”
Date: Aug 27, 2015 4:38 PM
Subject: [tt] NS 3035: Teal Burrell: Why choosing the right workout could fine-tune your brain
To: “Transhuman Tech”
Cc:

NS 3035: Teal Burrell: Why choosing the right workout could fine-tune your
brain
https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn28001-why-choosing-the-right-workout-could-fine-tune-your-brain/
19 August 2015

Teal Burrell is a science writer based in Washington DC.
Whether you need to focus for an exam, tap into your creativity, or
curb cravings, there’s a type of exercise that could help

PUMPING iron to sculpt your biceps. Yoga poses to stretch and relax.
Running to whittle your waistline and get fit fast. There are loads
of reasons why it’s smart to exercise, and most of us are familiar
with the menu of options and how each can shape and benefit your
body.

But we are discovering that there are numerous ways in which
exercise makes you smart too. Many of its effects have been going
unnoticed, but if you were to peer inside the heads of people who
like to keep active, you’d see that different exercises strengthen,
sculpt and shape the brain in myriad ways.

That the brains of exercisers look different to those of their more
sedentary counterparts is, in itself, not new. We have been hearing
for years that exercise is medicine for the mind, especially aerobic
exercise. Physical fitness has been shown to help with the cognitive
decline associated with dementia, Parkinson’s disease and
depression, and we know this is at least in part because getting
your blood pumping brings more oxygen, growth factors, hormones and
nutrients to your brain, leading it – like your muscles, lungs and
heart – to grow stronger and more efficient.

But a new chapter is beginning in our understanding of the influence
of physical exercise on cognition. Researchers are starting to find
more specific effects related to different kinds of exercise.

They are looking beyond the standard recommendation of 30 minutes of
moderate, aerobic exercise a day, for the sake of your brain. Are
there benefits to going slower or faster? To lifting weights, or
performing sun salutations? Whether you want a boost in focus for an
exam, find it hard to relax or are keen to quit smoking, there’s a
prescription for you.

The first clue that exercise affects the brain came from rodent
studies 15 years ago, which showed that allowing mice access to a
running wheel led to a boost in neuron formation in their
hippocampi, areas of the brain essential for memory. That’s because
exercise causes hippocampal neurons to pump out a protein called
brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth
of new neurons. The mice showed improvements in memory that allowed
them to navigate mazes better.

The findings were soon translated to humans. Older adults who did
aerobic exercise three times a week for a year also grew larger
hippocampi and performed better in memory tests. Those with the
highest levels of BDNF in their blood had the biggest increases in
this brain region.

The idea that exercise helps to improve memory has been especially
welcome given that the search for effective treatments for cognitive
decline has been slow in progress. And it now seems that aerobic
exercise such as running and cycling may help stave off Alzheimer’s
disease and other forms of dementia.

As the evidence for aerobic exercise accumulated, Teresa Liu-Ambrose
at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, began to
wonder about other types of exercise. She has been looking for ways
to halt dementia in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a
population of adults known to be at increased risk of developing
dementia, and was especially interested in strength training, which
has in recent years been added to US and UK government
recommendations for physical activity.

To test the idea, Liu-Ambrose compared the effects of aerobic
exercise and strength training in 86 women with MCI. She measured
their impact on two abilities known to decline as the condition
progresses: memory and executive function – which encompasses
complex thought processes, including reasoning, planning,
problem-solving and multitasking (see diagram). The ultimate brain
workout

Twice a week for an hour, one group lifted weights, while the other
went for brisk walks quick enough that talking required effort. A
control group just stretched for an hour instead. After six months
of this, both walking and lifting weights had a positive effect on
spatial memory – the ability to remember one’s surroundings and
sense of place.

On top of that, each exercise had unique benefits. The group that
lifted weights saw significant improvements to executive function.
They also performed better in tests of associative memory, which is
used for things like linking someone’s name to their face. The
aerobic-exercise group saw improvements to verbal memory – the
ability to remember that word you had on the tip of your tongue.
Simply stretching had no effect on either memory or executive
function.

If aerobic exercise and strength training have distinct benefits, is
combining them the way to go? To address this, Willem Bossers of the
University of Groningen in the Netherlands split 109 people with
dementia into three groups. One group walked briskly four times a
week for 30 minutes; a combination group walked twice a week and
strength-trained twice a week for 30 minutes each; and a control
group did no exercise. After nine weeks, Bossers put the
participants through a battery of executive-function tests that
measured problem-solving, inhibition and processing speed. He found
that the combination group showed more improvement in executive
function than the aerobic-only or control groups. “It seems that,
for older adults, walking only is not enough. They need to do some
strength training,” he says.

Immediate attention boost

And these benefits extend to healthy adults too. In a year-long
trial of healthy older women, Liu-Ambrose found that lifting
weights, even just once a week, resulted in significant improvements
in tests of executive function. Balancing and toning exercises, on
the other hand, did not.

The combination of lifting weights and aerobic exercise might be
particularly powerful because strength training triggers the release
of a molecule called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1), a growth
hormone produced in the liver that is known to affect communication
between brain cells, and to promote the growth of new neurons and
blood vessels. On the other hand, aerobic exercise mainly boosts
BDNF, says Liu-Ambrose. In addition, Bossers says strength training
also decreases levels of homocysteine, an inflammatory molecule that
is increased in the brains of older adults with dementia. By
combining aerobic exercise with strength training, you’re getting a
more potent neurobiological cocktail. “You’re attacking the system
in two ways,” he says.

The studies so far haven’t addressed how long the effects last, but
preliminary findings suggest adults will have to keep exercising to
maintain the benefits.

Another approach is to start young, with findings that different
types of exercise affect a child’s mental capacity in a number of
ways. For example, if you want kids to focus for an hour – on a
maths test, say – the best bet is to let them have a quick run
around first. That’s according to studies that show a simple
20-minute walk has immediate effects on children’s attention,
executive function and achievement in mathematics and reading tests.
Letting kids sprint or skip about has the same effect. A brisk walk
can also help children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
to focus, although again it’s not yet clear how long the effects
last.

These findings should be used to make decisions about the daily
school routine, says Charles Hillman at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, who carried out some of the research. He agrees
with current recommendations that children get at least an hour of
exercise daily, but notes that it might be best spread over the
course of the day. Because purely aerobic exercise keeps kids
focused in the near term, giving them breaks to walk or move around
every 2 hours might be the best way to promote learning.

In contrast, exercise that is highly structured and focused on
specific skills, such as for a sport or to improve coordination,
hampers attention. A bunch of drills and rules may be too taxing for
children right before a test or a situation that requires sustained
focus.

Instead, these kinds of specific exercises seem to build up
attention span gradually over the long-term. In research yet to be
published, Maria Chiara Gallotta at the University of Rome in Italy
found that twice-weekly sessions of coordinative exercises, such as
basketball, volleyball or gymnastics practice, over the course of
five months helped children do better on tests that required
concentration and ignoring distractions.

The cerebellum – the finely wrinkled structure at the base of the
brain – has been long known to be involved in coordinating movement,
but is now recognised as having a role in attention as well.
Practising complicated movements activates the cerebellum and, by
working together with the frontal lobe, might improve attention in
the process.

Making sure children are physically fit can have lasting cognitive
benefits too, says Hillman. He has shown that children who are fit
have larger hippocampi and basal ganglia, and that they perform
better in attention tests. The basal ganglia are a group of
structures important for movement and goal-directed behaviour –
turning thoughts into actions. They interact with the prefrontal
cortex to influence attention, inhibition and executive control,
helping people to switch between two tasks, such as going from
sorting cards by colour to sorting cards by suit.

Hillman focuses on children aged 8 to 11 because areas like the
hippocampi and basal ganglia are still maturing, so intervening at a
young age can make a big difference. And even small gains in fitness
lead to measurable changes in the brain. In some of his studies,
Hillman has put kids on year-long after-school fitness programmes.
Many are overweight, and while they don’t lose much weight, their
brains do change. They’re going from being unfit to slightly less
unfit, says Hillman. “But we’re still finding benefits to brain
function and cognition.”

Adults too can reap brain gains from sporty challenges, says Claudia
Voelcker-Rehage at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany. Her
research on older adults showed an increase in basal ganglia volume
following coordination exercises that included balancing,
synchronising arm and leg movements, and manipulating props like
ropes and balls, but not from aerobic exercise.

Surf yourself smart

So why the added benefits? Such activities require an understanding
of where things are in space, so one explanation is that they
activate both the visual system and the parietal lobe, the part of
the brain that integrates sensory and spatial information.

Indeed, Voelcker-Rehage found that these types of exercise improved
visual-spatial processing, required for mentally approximating
distances – for instance, being able to assess whether you have time
to cross the street before an oncoming car reaches you – more than
aerobic exercise.

Another explanation comes from recent research by Tracy and Ross
Alloway, both at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
They found that just a couple of hours of activity of the type we
often enjoy during childhood, such as climbing trees, crawling along
a beam, or running barefoot, had a dramatic effect on working
memory.

This is the ability to hold on to information and manipulate it in
our minds at the same time. “It prioritises and processes
information, allowing us to ignore what is irrelevant and work with
what is important,” says Tracy Alloway. “Working memory influences
nearly everything that you do, from the classroom to the boardroom.”

So what is it about climbing trees or beam balancing that is so
beneficial? The researchers only found positive results when the
activities were a combination of two things. They needed to
challenge the sense of proprioception – the position and orientation
of the body – and also needed at least one other element, such as
navigation, calculation or locomotion. Basically, the advantages
came from exercises in which we need to balance and think at the
same time.

A good example is surfing, says Alloway. “In order to even catch a
wave, you have to pay so much attention to proprioceptive
information or you slip off your board; you also have to judge the
best position to be in order to catch it, as well as to determine if
another surfer has priority to catch a wave.” In their study, a
group who did yoga, which involves proprioception, but not much
mental reasoning, didn’t see improvements in working memory; nor did
a group merely learning new information in a lecture setting.

The results were the same for children and adults. “The adults in
our study showed improved working memory after just a couple of
hours of doing playground-type activities,” Alloway says.

The more we learn about the effects of exercise on the brain, the
more different types of benefits are emerging, extending beyond
cognition to changes in behaviour.

One of the most popular fitness trends of the last few years is
high-intensity interval training, which involves quick spurts of
all-out exercise. Its sheer toughness is claimed to provide the same
benefits as longer efforts in a fraction of the time.

These workouts might have an extra advantage: short bursts of
activity can help curb cravings. And although the tougher the
better, they don’t necessarily have to be gut-bustingly hard.

To test the effects of intensity training on appetites, Kym Guelfi
at the University of Western Australia in Perth invited overweight
men to come into the lab on four separate occasions. On three of the
visits, they spent 30 minutes on an exercise bike, but at different
intensities – a moderate, continuous pace; alternating between
intervals of high-intensity cycling for 1 minute followed by 4
minutes of moderate cycling; or alternating between very high
intensity, 15-second sprints followed by one really easy minute. The
fourth visit consisted of resting for the full 30 minutes.

Craving control

After the most intense intervals, the men ate less of the provided,
post-workout porridge and less food overall for the next day and a
half compared with days they cycled moderately or simply rested.

One explanation could be that the exercise reduced levels of the
“hunger hormone”, ghrelin. This is responsible for telling the part
of the brain that controls eating – the hypothalamus – when the
stomach is empty. When full, ghrelin production shuts off and hunger
wanes. Following the most intense intervals of exercise, ghrelin
levels were lowest.

If intensity isn’t your thing, you could also play with the
thermostat. Guelfi and others have shown that exercising in the heat
reduces appetite, while exercising in the cold increases it. Again,
hormones like ghrelin or a small protein called peptide YY could
well be at play.

And although vigorous activity might curb appetite and stall
cravings for longer, even moderate exercise can help. Adrian Taylor,
now at Plymouth University in the UK, has found that short bouts of
activity can reduce cravings for both sugary snacks and cigarettes.

In earlier work, Taylor found that chocolate lovers consumed almost
half as much of it after a brisk 15-minute walk as those that rested
quietly. For smokers, 10 minutes of moderate biking helped reduce
self-reported cravings. Smokers’ brains were also scanned while they
viewed images designed to trigger cravings. Following cycling –
despite staring at pictures of cigarettes after being deprived for
15 hours – the smokers’ brains appeared relaxed. Regions implicated
in addiction were less activated after exercise, as if the tempting
cigarette were no more meaningful than a pencil.

It’s conceivable that exercise merely distracts from the urge, but
studies show that cravings were reduced more following a short bike
ride than after another distracting task involving mental
arithmetic.

It’s still early days, and while some of the studies point at
possible mechanisms behind the benefits, other effects have yet to
be explored. One theory is that certain types of exercise increase
blood-vessel formation in the brain, and so keep it working well.
Exercises that activate specific regions may bring more blood to
those areas, possibly building new vasculature that improves its
functioning, whether it be for better memory or better
problem-solving. And doing something unfamiliar, like learning a
dance step or balancing on a beam, could also create novel
connections between neurons, Voelcker-Rehage suggests.

What is clear is that these effects can endure well into old age,
and it’s never too late to start. The hippocampus shrinks as we get
older, leading to the typical struggles with memory. But aerobic
exercise not only prevents this loss – it reverses it, slowing the
effects of getting older. Voelcker-Rehage has found that the brain
requires less energy to complete certain tasks after exercise. “We
would say that points to the fact that the brain is more efficient,”
she says. “It works more like a young brain.”

And in a study looking at yogis that had been practising for many
years, Sara Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital found that some
brain regions were remarkably well preserved compared with those of
healthy controls that were matched for age, gender, education and
race. “The 50-year-old’s brain looked like a 25-year-old’s,” notes
Lazar.

If you’re still unsure which type of exercise to pick, there’s some
overlap between the different exercises and benefits, so
Liu-Ambrose’s suggestion is simple: “If you’re not active, do
something that you enjoy.” The best exercise is the kind that you’ll
actually do.

Feeling anxious? Say “om”

After a running injury, Sara Lazar decided to try yoga. She
initially rolled her eyes when the instructor touted the
mental-health benefits, but after a while she realised she felt
better able to handle difficult situations. She decided to look into
it at her lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, recruiting people
who were experiencing high levels of stress to attend yoga and
meditation classes for eight weeks. They also practised at home for
20 minutes a day. By the end, brain scans showed the volunteers’
amygdalae – brain regions that process fear and anxiety – had
shrunk, and participants reported feeling less stressed. While it’s
not yet clear why, yoga’s meditative aspect helps develop a calmer
outlook, which in turn reduces fear and anxiety, says Lazar.

Mind games for mobility

Moving the body can tone the mind (see main story), but could the
reverse also be true?

In other words, says Lindsay Nagamatsu at the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, can a mental workout influence how the body
moves?

It is commonly assumed that everyday movements like walking and
maintaining posture are automatic. But even if we don’t consciously
think about them, they still require a level of attention.

This becomes more apparent as we age, and Nagamatsu’s earlier work
shows that older people whose minds tend to wander, or who score
poorly on attention tests, are more likely to take a fall.
Physiotherapy and exercise improve mobility, but Nagamatsu wondered
if a boost in attention span could too.

To test this, she used a computer game that is known to improve
attention and perception called Music Catch. She got people aged
between 60 and 80 to either play this game for a total of 15 hours
over five weeks, or another game known to help with working memory
and reasoning but not attention.

Before and after this she tested their walking speeds, a commonly
used indicator of someone’s risk of falling or being able to live
independently.

Nagamatsu showed that the Music Catch group ended up with
significant improvements in speed. The game seemed to be
particularly helpful because it required paying attention to
multiple things at once, as we do when walking while carrying on a
conversation, for example.

And walking speed might be important more generally: “It has also
been shown to predict morbidity and mortality in older adults,” says
Nagamatsu, “so I think that it’s an important outcome to try to
improve.”

Let loose for creativity

Daniel Schwartz practises what he preaches. During our interview he
is strolling through Stanford University’s leafy campus, an activity
that according to his research boosts divergent creativity –
otherwise known as thinking outside the box.

It is walking at a leisurely, everyday pace that does this, not at a
speed that would be aerobically challenging or make you out of
breath. In Schwartz’s study – which he thought of while out on a
walk – people came up with more unique uses for everyday objects
when walking outside or on a treadmill than when seated. He even
found that taking a walk has a stronger effect on creativity than
IQ. And people continued to be more creative afterwards, suggesting
a saunter before a brainstorming session is a good idea.

Or, if you’re more of a jitterbug, Peter Lovatt, a dance
psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, suggests you
“put on some music and start having a boogie”, and the key is to
keep it loose. After a session when people had to improvise dance
moves, they came up with more creative answers to problems than
after a structured dance session or no dancing at all. It seems that
creative movements – no matter how silly – lead to creative
problem-solving. In fact, the sillier the better: the trick is to
move in different ways. So if you tend to move your arms a lot when
you dance, focus on your hips instead. “Having a spontaneous wiggle
– without any pre-planning – is really good for divergent thinking,”
Lovatt says.

Eight ways exercise can boost your brain

Improve working memory – surfing, running, climbing trees
Boost creativity – dance or stroll
De-stress – yoga
Immediate attention – unstructured play
Long-term focus – play sports
Keep the brain young – running, yoga
Curb cravings – interval sprints
Problem-solving – lifting weights
_______________________________________________
tt mailing list
tt@postbiota.org
http://postbiota.org/mailman/listinfo/tt

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: