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Keeping your brain sharp with dumbbells

Aug 3, 2012, 8:15 a.m.

Use it or lose it! Without exercise our muscles lose mass and we lose strength that can lead to slips, trips, falls and accidents. According to Harvard professor of psychiatry, Dr. John J. Ratey, M.D., what's true for the muscle is also true for the brain: Exercise keeps the brain healthy and growing in three ways.

Exercise puts the brain in a condition where it is ready to learn new material. Exercise reduces stress and anxiety and increases our attention, focus and motivation. These mental states are critical to learning.

Exercise enriches the brain by releasing and bathing the brain with dozens of nutrients, enzymes and neurotransmitters. This neuro-chemical bath encourages individual neurons to make new connections and build new circuits. Those circuits create memory when neurons fire together repeatedly. Eventually, with repeated firing, those neurons that fire together, wire together, improving memory and storing information for the long-term.

Exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells. Until the 1970's scientists thought humans were born with a fixed number of brain cells, about 100 billion. Today we know otherwise and have discovered hundreds of enzymes and chemicals that lead directly to new cell formation. One in particular, brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is sometimes called "Miracle-Gro for the Brain" because it dramatically stimulates new cell growth. The big news: BDNF is a byproduct of exercise. The more exercise, the more BDNF, the more brain growth.

For example, the hippocampus is our "memory central" where long term memories are processed and stored. Stem cells pool around the hippocampus in an undifferentiated form. If they don't become an active part of the brain within about four weeks, the stem cells die. It has been shown over and over again that exercise causes those stem cells to differentiate and become an active part of our hippocampus, causing it to gain size and grow.

How much and what kind of exercise to promote brain health should you seek? The very best program would bring you to 75 or 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for 30 to 40 minutes each day. However even 15 minutes daily on the treadmill at maximum heart rate will help, according to Dr. Ratey.

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