Physical fitness has been known as the key to good health for centuries. Physical fitness has built the world’s best bodies and toughest athletes. Touted for it’s positive effects when it comes to aging and releasing “feel good” endorphins, physical fitness is important for overall health and well-being. But did you know that physical fitness is just as good for the brain? Studies have shown that good physical fitness can actually improve the brain tissue that is connected to learning and brain function. We’ll take a closer look at how that is possible.
Just one-quarter of today’s youth engage in the recommended amount of physical activity, or 60 minutes daily, according to the Center for Disease Control. Add to that, only about half of adults get the recommended daily activity. While there are a variety of reasons that these requirements are not being met, from demographics to income and even education level, the need for improved physical fitness is great. Inactive adults have been shown to have a higher risk of diseases such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and depression, as well as the risk of an early death.
While we know that physical fitness is important to stave off disease and depression, now we are also finding that physical fitness is just as important to our brain health. One study, led by Laura Chaddock-Heyman, a research scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Chapaign’s Beckman Institute, found that greater aerobic exercise is associated with more fibrous and compact white matter. White matter connects the different regions of the brain’s gray matter and is associated with cognitive function, learning, memory and language. In the study, researchers used a type of MRI to look at five different white matter tracts in the brains of 12 nine and ten year olds. Half of the study participants were physically fit and the other half were less so. Results showed that the children who were more physically fit outperformed the other half of the participants on tasks of attention, memory and school performance.
And according to research from Boston University, kids are not the only group whose brains benefit from physical fitness. Last December, they published a study in the Journal of Gerontology that compared the brain power among a group of adults ranging in age from 18 to 31 and another group ranging in age from 55 to 82 with a range of physical fitness levels. In the younger group, better heart and lung fitness had no effect on memory but in the older group, better heart and lung health translated to improved memory, problem-solving and decision-making skills. One thing is certain, the benefits of physical fitness are seen in nearly every aspect of one’s health and reaping those benefits with just an hour of activity per day is an achievable goal no matter what age or physical fitness level you are at.