While the Center for Disease Control & Prevention recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week for optimal cardiovascular health, in addition to twice weekly strength training sessions for bone and joint health, preliminary research suggests that as little as six minutes a day may improve the health of your brain.
In a study conducted at UC Irvine’s Center for the Neurology of Learning & Memory, researchers asked adults between the ages of 50 and 85 to ride a stationary bike for six minutes at 70-percent their maximum capacity. While biking, test subjects were shown a series of pleasant images, such as a family sitting down to supper, or a bee pollinating a flower. One hour later, they were asked to complete a surprise memory test. As predicted, recall was better in the biking group than in the sedentary control group, suggesting that even small bouts of cardiovascular exercise can enhance brain function.
Exercise works on the brain by triggering the release of norepinephrine, commonly referred to as the “mood hormone.” Norepinephrine is actually a powerful neurotransmitter that enhances mental alertness, improves memory, and increases energy, which in turn can relieve depression and various symptoms of fatigue. Given that many fatigue and fibromyalgia patients have weakened muscles from disuse, and often experience pain in the effort to move, it is best to begin slowly and progress gradually in your approach to exercise. For example, you might begin by performing 10-20 minutes’ of yoga, swimming, water aerobics, or light walking, and gradually increase to 30-45minutes, three to four times per week. Slow progression allows you to strengthen your muscles and supporting joints over time, thereby reducing the risk of injury.
Next time, we will take a closer look at fibromyalgia as a pain disorder, with a particular focus on how it differs from other disorders, such as rheumatism and osteoarthritis.
Here at Restorative Health Clinic, we treat many patients with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue-related symptoms, to include the experience of brain or “fibro-fog.” Commonly characterized by lapses in memory, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and disrupted speech patterns, a foggy brain can negatively impact the work, school, home-life, and general sense of wellness for patients battling fatigue. While Western medicine typically treats the fog with stimulants and instructions to minimize stress—ironically, as stimulants can increase stress—new research suggests that exercise can improve memory and sharpen the mind, particularly in the elderly and cognitively-impaired.
In a recent study conducted at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, researchers tested exercise’s effects on the brain by dividing mice into four groups. While the first group was placed in an “enrichment” kennel containing cheese, fruits and nuts, tunnels, see-saws, colored balls and comfy beds, the second group was placed in an identical kennel, save for the addition of a running wheel. Similarly, while the third group’s kennel was empty, aside from water and plain kibble, the fourth kennel contained water, kibble, and the addition of a running wheel. Prior to placement, the rodents underwent a series of cognitive tests, and were injected with a serum able to tract brain activity. Tests were repeated after several months’ time in their respective environments, with surprising results. While the enrichment mice and the kibble-and-water mice showed little change in brain activity, rodents who ran on their wheels “had healthier brains and performed better on cognitive tests” than their sedentary counterparts. Researchers concluded that it was not the degree of available stimuli, but rather the practice of daily cardiovascular exercise—the only other variable—that was responsible for the difference in brain health.
How can running on a wheel make a mouse any smarter than nibbling fruit and napping all day? Have these results been replicated in studies with human test-subjects, and if so, how much exercise is necessary to improve the health of the human brain? These are just a few of the questions I’ll explore this week in the coming posts.