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Brain Volume & Aerobic Exercise

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Brain Volume & Aerobic Exercise - Tuesday, June 12, 2007Countless studies have documented the various physical benefits of aerobic (cardiorespiratory) exercise. There are multiple studies that demonstrate that regular physical activity improves mood, and routine exercise has been shown to be helpful in coping with depression. There are many research studies that suggest improvement in cognitive abilities and memory in those who perform regular physical activity, and some research has suggested a reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, in those who exercise.

A recent study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences demonstrated that as little as three hours a week of aerobic activity was associated with an increase in brain volume. This is the first published research study to indicate that exercise may produce measurable changes in the size of the brain. In this study, the investigators enlisted 59 healthy but sedentary volunteers between the ages of 60 and 79. These subjects participated in a six-month clinical trial. They met three times a week for exercise sessions. Half of the subjects did aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, while the other half did only toning and stretching exercises. Twenty young adults, who did not engage in a structured exercise program, served as controls in this investigation. The researchers used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans to evaluate brain volume. The MRI studies were performed at baseline and redone after six months. Brain tissue consists of gray matter and white matter, and the MRI scans measured the quantity of both in the study participants.

After six months, those individuals who had performed aerobic exercise showed significant increases in brain volume. The volunteers who had done only stretching and toning exercises did not demonstrate a change in the volume of brain tissue. As expected, the young healthy adults who did not exercise showed no significant change in brain size after the six-month period.

The aerobic exercise intervention was designed to improve cardiorespiratory fitness. The participants in this group performed moderate intensity aerobic activity, three times a week for one hour. This training group showed a significant 16.1% increase in maximal oxygen uptake by the end of the study. The older control participants who performed only stretching and toning movements showed an insignificant 5.3% change in maximal oxygen consumption across the six-month intervention.

At the conclusion of the study, the volunteers who had participated in the aerobic exercise intervention demonstrated statistically significant increases in brain volume. The changes were most noticeable in the frontal and temporal lobes. These portions of the brain are associated with multiple functions, including memory, inhibition, and general intelligence. Loss of brain volume with advancing age is often most noticeable in the frontal and temporal lobes. This study is noteworthy because its results suggest that aerobic exercise may play a role in reversing age-related decrease in brain volume (brain atrophy). At this point, it is premature to assume that the increase in brain volume results in, or correlates with, clinically significant changes in cognitive ability. Also, this investigation awaits confirmation by studies using a larger number of participants.

This study shows yet another potential benefit of engaging in a regular program of physical activity. It should be noted that the amount of exercise performed by the volunteers -- about 3 hours per week -- was very attainable, and the intensity level was moderate, such that it could be done by most otherwise healthy older adults. It is intriguing to think that not only can you "pump up" your muscles by exercising, you can also "pump up" your brain.

  • Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Scalf PE, et al. Aerobic exercise training increase brain volume in aging humans. Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences. 2006 (Nov);61(11):1166-70.
Read more about how exercise is good for your brain, from the American Council on Exercise:

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