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.