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Exercise is good for your brain, too

New research on mice shows that physical activity can create new neurons in the brain, improving memory and delaying the onset of dementia.
Hit the pavement to get that runner's high. Photo: ISTOCK

If you hate exercise, but make yourself do it to keep your weight in check, here’s another reason to keep moving: It’s good for your brain, too.

We know that exercise releases endorphins, the “feel good” hormone which improves our mood and alleviates physical pain. If you’ve never experienced this, hit the pavement so you can: It’s what people are referring to when they talk about a “runner’s high.” Many folks, including this author, work out more for its antidepressant effects than to, say, get six-pack abs. 

How else might it help the ol’ noggin? The New York Times reports on new research which shows that physical activity in lab animals creates new neurons in the brain (this is called neurogenesis), altering their shape and the way they work, with the benefit of improving memory and delaying symptoms of dementia. 

The new study, published in Scientific Reports, examined the brain tissue of two groups of mice, one which ran on their wheels for a week, the other which remained inactive. The researchers, from the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute of Aging, found that the running group had developed significantly more new neurons than the sedentary group. This was piggybacking on prior research, published in NeuroImage, which showed similar results in mice that ran over the course of a month. 

Granted, these new findings pertain to mice, and not humans. But as Henriette van Praag, an investigator at the NIH and the lead author of both studies, told the Times, “I think it is a very good idea for the sake of the brain to be moving and active.” It certainly can’t hurt  — unlike sitting, which is actually linked to a higher likelihood of early death.