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09/29/2016 12:13 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2016

The Scary Impact Skipping Exercise For Only 10 Days Has On Your Brain

Use it or lose it.
Cathy Yeulet via Getty Images

Thinking about skipping the gym today? You might want to rethink that choice. While we all know a workout can feel so much tougher after a fitness hiatus, researchers believe that going without exercise for as little as 10 days can cause changes in your brain.

In a small study published in the Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers from the University of Maryland in College Park set out to see what changes occur in the brain of fit, active older people after they stop exercising.

They recruited 12 exceptionally fit and active adults, between the ages of 50 and 80. The subjects were all competitive runners who regularly ran 35 miles per week or more. 

Senior author J. Carson Smith told The New York Times that they purposely sought out “serious endurance athletes because they would be expected to have a very high baseline” fitness level. The effects of stopping exercise for this group, they believed, would be magnified compared with someone with a more moderate fitness level. 

They were asked to cease all exercise and adopt a sedentary lifestyle for 10 days. In just this short span of time, researchers observed some “significant” brain changes. 

Compared to an MRI scan given at the beginning of the study, the subjects showed decreased blood flow in eight different parts of the brain ― including the hippocampus, the brain’s memory center, and several regions that are commonly affected by Alzheimer’s disease. 

“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,” Smith said in a statement. 

On the plus side, they didn’t observe any changes in cognitive abilities after the 10-day study. They did not, however, measure if brain flow recovered to normal levels once the subjects restarted their usual fitness regimens. 

Researchers say further studies are needed to understand how quickly exercise cessation causes changes in the brain, whether resuming exercise can reverse the changes and what the longterm outcomes can be. 

“But the take home message is simple ― if you do stop exercising for 10 days, just as you will quickly lose your cardiovascular fitness, you will also experience a decrease in blood brain flow,” Smith said.

Time to lace up those running shoes, folks. 

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