11/14/2012 03:02 pm ET Updated Jan 14, 2013

Fit and Smart: Does Exercise Improve Your Brain?


According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise has a wide array of benefits including weight control, combating health problems and disease, improved mood, greater energy, better sleep, better sex and more fun.

When you take the mind-body connection one step further and study exercise and mental acuity, do you see a link?

Cognition is your brain's ability to acquire and process knowledge through thought, your experiences and your senses. It involves thinking, remembering, judging and solving problems.

Our ability to take in information and reason is undeniably important in our ability to function in the world. Our cognitive functioning allows us to find misplaced car keys, create a budget, analyze career options and synthesize social information, to name a few crucial examples.

A number of research studies have identified a link between improved cognitive functioning and exercise in elderly people. A 2004 study, for example found that exercise did, in fact, improve the cognitive functioning of elderly people with cognitive impairments or dementia. In an analysis of more than 30 years of data and 2020 subjects, this study found that groups who exercised faired better in terms of mental acuity than those who did not exercise.

Can the same be true for adults of all ages? According to a recent study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress and reported in the Wall Street Journal, it can.

This small study involved overweight sedentary adults. They first underwent a series of assessments and then completed twice weekly exercise sessions. These sessions involved both cardiovascular exercise -- biking -- and weight training, lasting for four months.

The fitness gains for the group were clear, with reduced waist circumference and lower body weight. Researchers reported the more surprising result: "significantly and clinically" improved functioning on tests of mental acuity.

"Even 10 minutes can change your brain," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain John Ratey, in the Journal article. According to Ratey, exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called "growth factors." It is these growth factors that help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.

A study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests there is a growing body of evidence for the influence of respiratory fitness on cognitive ability in older adults. This study examined the association between neural circuits involved in the control of attention and fitness. It found that higher fit adults have a natural capacity for neuroplasticity, that is the ability of the brain to grow, change and learn.

A 2009 study found that in adults exercise training increased the size of the hippocampus-that part of the brain that plays an important role in the consolidation of information -- and improved memory.

Scientists have long studied exercise and its impact on any number of physical and emotional factors, including bone density, cardiovascular disease and stress. If these advantages aren't enough to get you motivated, maybe knowing that it also improves your mind will.

For more by Christy Matta, M.A., click here.

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.

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