Until the late 1990s, scientists believed that human brains were fixed and through aging, decreased in function. This belief has since changed due to studies indicating that our brains continue to make neurons, cells that transmit information to other cells in our body and allow creation of thoughts and memories. Studies also showed that exercise could increase neurogenesis, which is the process of creating neurons.
Studies revealed that human brains create new neurons throughout life and it is possible to accelerate neurogenesis through exercise, but these studies mainly focused on gray matter. With white matter, it was a different story. White matter, brain wiring connecting the neurons, is considered fragile and was thought to weaken as aging occurred. That is until a professor of neuroscience and human development at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Agnieszka Burzynska, and her team of graduate students decided to test whether white matter is just as malleable as gray matter.
The team recruited 250 older people and tested their aerobic and cognitive skills, then divided them into three groups. The first, the control group, did stretching and balancing exercises three days a week; the second group began walking together three times a week for forty minutes; and the third started taking dance classes together three times a week. After six months, the groups re-did the skills tests and all but the control group saw improvement, both physically and mentally, with the walkers exhibiting the most improvement. The scientists found that the white matter in the brain of the walkers and dancers had grown. The stretchers however, showed degeneration of the white matter and did poorly on their cognitive tests.
Exercising has many benefits including weight management, life span extension, protection against chronic diseases, and now there’s evidence that briskly walking three times a week helps improve memory and cognitive skills.
[Source: New York Times]