aging · fitness

Why fitness really matters: Brain health, memory, and imagination

Why should you care about fitness? What reasons speak in favour of caring? Again, it’s okay not to care all things considered. You might have reasons against and other things that matter more.

But before you decide where you stand after weighing considerations on both sides, make sure you’ve got an eye on all the different reasons for pursuing a physically active lifestyle. There are lots of reasons in favour that have nothing to do with sports performance, on the one hand, or appearance, on the other.

Last week I posted about functional fitness, keeping the kind of skills that enable you to live independently without pain as you age.

But here’s another reason, one that speaks especially to academics. You should care about physical fitness because you care about your brain.

I often think about how high school, for me, got it so very wrong. Then you were either a bookish, smart sort (that was me, surprised?) or a jock. You couldn’t be both. The only sports were team sports. Individual athletic sports like running and cycling weren’t on my radar at all. Years later I see with my kids that things are a bit better but not great. One kid who excels in team sports was frequently questioned about his advanced academic standing. People didn’t believe he could be both gifted academically and play team sports. That is, I think, until the football coach started also teaching advanced math.

And it’s not just true that you can do both. Academic and athletic performance are frequently connected. See Top athletes aren’t just faster and fitter, they’re also smarter. Maybe the ancient philosophers had it right about the unity of the virtues after all.

Plato: “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these means, man can attain perfection.”

Socrates: “No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”

I’ve been thinking about this lately for three different reasons. I mentioned the first one at the start, questions from academics who hold physical activity in disdain, or who more neutrally, see no reason to do it. The second one comes from teaching sports ethics. Most of my students were athletes of some sort and who felt that sports and physical activity were an important aspect of life lived well. We had some really good conversations. And finally, the third reason. The link between brain health and physical activity has been in the news a lot lately.

Here’s this from The latest research shows that all of us can pump up our brainpower by exercising regularly:

Rarely do you find neuroscientists, psychologists and physicians agreeing unequivocally on anything. But here’s an exception: They all say that exercise is hands down the single best thing you can do for your brain.

“If we had a pill that could do what exercise does, its sales would put Viagra’s to shame,” says Laura L. Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and author of A Long Bright Future.

 Aerobic exercise “keeps cognitive abilities sharp and slashes your lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s in half,” says John Medina, an affiliate professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and author of Brain Rules.

In fact, the biggest trend in exercise science in 2015 was the link between brain health and physical exercise. To stay sharp mentally, we need to move. See Fit Body, Fit Brain in the New York Times.

See also Does exercise keep our brains young?

I was especially excited to see that not all the studies were on men. This study from the University of British Columbia looked at the effects of weight training on the brains of women.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers analyzed 155 women ages 65 to 75. In the group, 54 subjects showed through MRI scans some evidence of a type of brain lesion, a common indicator of aging.

The team followed the women for a year while they started to do three types of exercise program: lifting weights once every week, lifting weights twice weekly, and stretching and balance training (only as a control).

The researchers made another scan of the women’s brains at the end of the year. The control group was found to exhibit progression of brain lesions in both number and size. However, slowed progression of the lesions was discovered in those who lifted weights twice weekly.

Study author Teresa Liu-Ambrose, UBC physical therapy professor and the laboratory’s director, said this is one of the first to show weight training benefits on the brain.

And increasingly research is showing that exercise in childhood aids brain growth and development. Even if we just care about intellectual achievement and development, we ought to fund school sports and provide children with regular physical activity and opportunities for movement.

Again, it’s okay not to care about any of this. You can say that you don’t care about looks, sports performance, functional fitness, and brain health. Let me say it again, you do you!

My point is though that there are lots of different reasons for getting exercise beyond performance (I want to run 5 km faster!) and beyond looks (I want defined quads cause they’re hot.)

If you care about your brain, get your body moving and lift the heavy things.



7 thoughts on “Why fitness really matters: Brain health, memory, and imagination

  1. This series of posts about fitness goals beyond appearance and performance has been really interesting to me! Your work is appreciated!

  2. I know for a fact that since starting to do physical gym -it has definitely helped me focus more and improved my mood. In a way that has made me more smarter because I’ve had the courage to pursue my goals.

  3. It is amazing, the correlation between our bodies and our minds. I think it’s often forgotten, or not even thought of, especially for kids as you said. But I know that when I’m more active, my college work improves because my body is more awake and able to sustain energy. Thanks for your post!

  4. Great post… I’m doing some work with brain scientists right now and the emerging links between mental health conditions like bipolar and vascular health are fascinating. I had a great convo with a scientist who mused “we know exercise is good for the brain but we don’t know which parts are affected by blood flow in which ways yet.” They are doing research with different MRI sequences and oxygen flow. Fascinating stuff.

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