How to build a better brain

Source: Photo taken by L in Japan

In recent years when I started working part-time, I found that my level of stress has not abated. Himself suggested that I walk, to simulate a “fight or flight” response for my body.

Some of you may find this obvious, but not to me. My family doesn’t exercise, and my mom claims that her doctor told her not to exercise. In school, my teachers would get us to exercise at 10am, and resume classes in our sticky tropical sweat. At my first workplace, my bosses scoffed at “farmers”. All brawn and no brains. Thus begins my research and excitement when I read some of the experiments cited by Reynolds.

Thus began my love-hate relationship with exercise, especially given that my favourite past-time was eating, I had to exercise to keep my Asian frame in respectable-husband-worthy form.

I’m reading “The First 20 minutes – the surprising science of how we can exercise better, train smarter and live longer” by Gretchen Reynolds

In Ch8 of her book, Reynolds opens with a story of the sea squirt, which has long sections of DNA similar to our own. Movement of the sea squirt seems to strengthen their brain and the nervous system connections.

These are the benefits of exercise cited by Reynolds:

Creation of new brain cells
Pumps up existing ones
Improves mood
Aids in multi-tasking
Blunts aging-related memory loss
Sharpens decision making
Dulls stress
Enfeebles bullies
Improves thinking

The experiments were initially tested on mice by Fred Rusty Gage, a world renowned professor in the Department of Genetics and his colleagues on a Morris water maze which was the rats equivalent of an IQ test. The difference between the smart mice and those that failed the test was exercise. Later the experiments were done on brain tissue from deceased cancer patients who had donated their bodies to research.

Again Dr Gage saw new neurons, centred almost exclusively in the hippocampus.

In another experiment conducted by Dr Nathaniel Thom, a stress physiologist at a recent American College of Sports Medicine conference presented studies that showed that exercise, even a single bout of it (in the experiment it was 30 mins on a stationary bike), can have a robust prophylactic effect against the buildup of anger. The volunteers still became upset but it helped them to hold their anger in check.

In another experiment by Dr Lehmann of the National Institute of Mental Health, exercise helps to achieve emotional resilience. The researchers gathered two groups of male mice. “Some were strong and aggressive. The others less so. The alpha mice got private cages and acted like thugs. They had to be restrained from harming the smaller mice when the partition was removed for 5 mins… Under such conditions, the smaller animals were predictably twitchy and submissive… After two weeks, the weaker mice became nervous wrecks.”

In a separate group of mice that had been allowed access to running wheels for several weeks before they were housed with the aggressive mice, they appeared stress resistant. Although these mice were wisely submissive when confronted by the bullies, they didn’t freeze or cling to dark spaces in unfamiliar situations. They explored.

Dr Lehmann expounded that one of the mysteries of mental illness is why some people respond pathologically to stress and some seem to be stress resistant. The answer, according to Dr Michael Hopkins at Dartmouth University, may at least, in part be workouts. Possibly that the “positive stress of exercise prepares cells and structures and pathways within the brain so that they’re more equipped to handle stress in other forms.”

How much exercise is needed?

Dr Lehmann doesn’t run. He walks everywhere (has no car) and does not believe that hours of daily exercise are needed or desirable. “The mice in his lab ran only when and for as long as they wished.” [NB: To our Minister of Transport, maybe the solution is not cycling but walking!]

Some experimenters demonstrated that aerobic exercise was better. Others showed that weight training was more suitable, in experiments involving older women of 60 yrs and above. And the studies showed that people with low efficacy and low confidence showed injuries. Hence its better for them to get some kind of coaching help.

To find out more, read this book!

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