How Exercise Tones Your Brain

A recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Minnesota suggests that exercise can protect your brain from fatty foods. Most people are aware that a high-fat diet is a major contributor to weight gain and overall poor health, but did you know that fatty foods could also contribute to a ‘fat head’? A growing body of research has suggested that this is the case—at least in lab animals.

In the study, a group of rats were given a memory test. Afterward, the group was divided in half and the groups were fed two different diets. Although the total calories were equal, the first group was fed a normal diet while the second group was fed a high-fat diet. After four months, the rats were retested. The rats on the high-fat diet exhibited, “significant cognitive decline,” while the rats on a normal diet performed the same as they had before.

Upon reviewing these results, it is not difficult to imagine what this could mean for humans. Years of eating a fatty diet can definitely do damage to your brain.

The Good News

Thankfully, the study did not end here. After four months, half of the rats in both groups were given access to running wheels (exercise). While the performance of the rats that ate the fatty diet continued to decline, the ones exercising had significant improvements in their thinking and memory. Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that these improvements occurred while the rats were still eating a high-fat diet.

After seven weeks, researchers found that exercise had actually, “Reversed the high-fat diet induced cognitive decline.” While the results of exercise are clear, researchers are still unsure how exercise can undo brain damage caused by a high-fat diet. According to a November 7, 2012, New York Times health blog, research suggests that free fatty acids, found in a high-fat diet, may start a process leading to cellular damage in the brain. However, exercise seems to stimulate the production of specific biochemical substances that protect your brain from damage.

The Better News

It seems like we’ve always known it, but exercise is good for our bodies. Should it really surprise us then, that exercise can benefit our brains as well? The truth is, regular physical exercise is the best thing you could do for your health.

Lest you think you need to train like an Olympic athlete to receive these benefits, consider this: Dr. Mavanji, the principal researcher, explained that we don’t actually require all that much exercise to protect our brains. The rats were only exercising the human equivalent of a daily 30-minute jog. It’s not just hype; moderate exercise produces actual results.

Even something as simple as walking has a great impact. A study published in Feb. 2012 showed that daily physical activity, such as walking, was an important factor in controlling blood sugar levels after meals. So remember to move. Take a short walk when you have a few minutes to spare. Not only is it good for you body, but it’s good for your mind. Your brain will thank you for it.

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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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