Use Exercise to Build a Bigger Brain

Use Exercise to Build a Bigger Brain

The Good News

We’re swamped with research on how to grow and maintain a bigger brain into old age. Much of the research emphasizes exercise as essential to brain health at every age. Here’s a summary of relevant baseline research, then we’ll move to some new, interesting and thought-provoking research.


Dr. Carl Cotman and Dr. Nicole Berchtold of the University of California Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia performed research on aerobic exercise and brain health. Cotman and Berchtold concentrated on “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF). Because, in their words “it supports the survival and growth of many neuronal subtypes, including glutamatergic neurons”. In our (very) layman understanding, BDNF is a protein that helps nerve cells do, well, a lot. Grow in particular, as well as get stronger and avoid premature cellular death.

Cotman and Berchtold learned that the act of consistent exercise increased levels of BNDF in the hippocampus. This finding was important, because previously the assumption was that the brain benefited as a secondary effect of exercise, from improved blood flow, etc. But their research indicated that it benefitted directly from exercise. Said differently, the brain benefits in two ways from exercise: by improving circulation and reducing blood pressure, exercise contributes to brain health indirectly. But it also contributes directly by triggering BDNF production. Link to that foundational research here.

Long-term subscribers know that part of our belief is that a healthy lifestyle and efforts to build a big brain are inextricably linked: to enjoy your super-power brain, you want to live a long time.

New Findings

  1. An American Heart Association report indicates that:
    • Very fit individuals with high cholesterol and triglycerides have a lower risk of premature death than unfit individuals taking statin drugs.
    • Low fitness is a stronger predictor of premature death than smoking or high blood pressure. Link here.
  1. Marni Boppart is the head of the Molecular Muscle Physiology Laboratory at the University of IL-Champagne-Urbana. She and two others wrote Choosing the StrongPath: Reversing the Downward Spiral of Aging. In the book, they argue that sarcopenia, the loss of muscle and strength associated with old age, is not inevitable at all, but rather the result of the tendency of older adults to become more sedentary. Further, this loss of muscle is associated with higher risks of all kinds of bad stuff: Alzheimer’s Disease, infections, diabetes, heart disease and falls. Their recipe: regular strength training.
  2. Christine Wrann, PhD and assistant professor of Medicine at the Harvard Medical School is involved in research on endurance exercise and brain health. Studies indicate that six months of consistent endurance exercise results in the creation of new brain cells in areas involved in formation of new memories. Further, it increases brain volume in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, which are areas that normally shrink with age. [Bigger Brain boys and girls. Bigger Brain.]

I’ll Bet You Haven’t Heard This Before

Michelle Motolla, PhD and professor at Western University in Ontario CN studies exercise and pregnant women. Her research shows that pregnant woman who don’t exercise are 2.5 times more likely to have an overweight infant. Moreover, half of the pregnant women who develop gestational diabetes have a overweight newborn, and those infants are more likely to become obese adults. Links here, here and here.

And a Warning

Barry Franklin, PhD at Wayne State, warns of the risk of vigorous exercise for those not already in shape. Vigorous exertion can markedly increase the risk of sudden cardiac death when done by someone not already fit. Those of us in the cold and snowy sections of the country see this every winter where someone shoveling snow suffers a fatal heart attack. Link here.

 If you aren’t working out regularly, see your physician first and then begin your program gradually.

In Case You Missed It

Our take on how you can prevent stress from damaging your brain. Link here.

We covered the diet almost guaranteed to grow a bigger brain. Link here.


Shameless Plug

Take a look at our brain-challenging puzzles, educational games for children, and brain-testing board games Have some fun while building that mega-power brain.

More Brain-Building Ideas

I founded Big Brain Place because I saw how fast science is discovering the secrets to brain health, and realized how little I knew about it. Clearly I couldn't be the only one not familiar with the possible actions that can optimize brain health.  At BigBrain.Place we are on a mission to help everyone, at any age, improve cognition, reduce the risk of dementia, insure our children have the opportunity to develop maximum brain capacity, and, in general, make our brainspans match our lifespans.

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