Exercise maintains brain size, new research finds

November 13, 2017, University of Western Sydney
Exercise increases brain size, new research finds
Credit: University of Western Sydney

Aerobic exercise can improve memory function and maintain brain health as we age, a new Australian-led study has found.

In a first of its kind international collaboration, researchers from Australia's National Institute of Complementary Medicine (opens in new window) at Western Sydney University and the Division of Psychology and Mental Health at the University of Manchester in the UK examined the effects of aerobic on a region of the called the hippocampus, which is critical for memory and other brain functions.

Brain health decreases with age, with the average brain shrinking by approximately five per cent per decade after the age of 40.

Studies in mice and rats have consistently shown that physical exercise increases the size of the hippocampus but until now evidence in humans has been inconsistent.

The researchers systematically reviewed 14 clinical trials which examined the brain scans of 737 people before and after aerobic exercise programs or in control conditions.

The participants included a mix of healthy adults, people with such as Alzheimer's and people with a clinical diagnosis of mental illness including depression and schizophrenia. Ages ranged from 24 to 76 years with an average age of 66.

The researchers examined effects of aerobic exercise, including stationary cycling, walking, and treadmill running. The length of the interventions ranged from three to 24 months with a range of 2-5 sessions per week.

Overall, the results – published in the journal NeuroImage– showed that, while exercise had no effect on total hippocampal volume, it did significantly increase the size of the left region of the hippocampus in humans.

Lead author, NICM postdoctoral research fellow, Joseph Firth said the study provides some of the most definitive evidence to date on the benefits of exercise for .

"When you exercise you produce a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which may help to prevent age-related decline by reducing the deterioration of the brain," Mr Firth said.

"Our data showed that, rather than actually increasing the size of the hippocampus per se, the main 'brain benefits' are due to slowing down the deterioration in . In other words, exercise can be seen as a maintenance program for the brain."

Mr Firth said along with improving regular 'healthy' ageing, the results have implications for the prevention of ageing-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's and dementia – however further research is needed to establish this.

Interestingly, is one of the very few 'proven' methods for maintaining brain size and functioning into older age.

Explore further: Dance your way to a healthier aging brain

More information: Joseph Firth et al. Effect of aerobic exercise on hippocampal volume in humans: A systematic review and meta-analysis, NeuroImage (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2017.11.007

Related Stories

Dance your way to a healthier aging brain

October 13, 2017
(HealthDay)—Dance classes may beat traditional exercise when it comes to improving older adults' balance—and it might enhance brain areas related to memory and learning along the way.

Regular aerobic exercise boosts memory area of brain in older women

April 8, 2014
Regular aerobic exercise seems to boost the size of the area of the brain (hippocampus) involved in verbal memory and learning among women whose intellectual capacity has been affected by age, indicates a small study published ...

Exercise can tackle symptoms of schizophrenia

August 12, 2016
Aerobic exercise can significantly help people coping with the long-term mental health condition schizophrenia, according to a new study from University of Manchester researchers.

Aerobic and resistance exercise combo can boost brain power of over 50s

April 24, 2017
A combination of aerobic and resistance exercises can significantly boost the brain power of the over 50s, finds the most comprehensive review of the available evidence to date, published online in the British Journal of ...

Sustained aerobic exercise increases adult neurogenesis in the brain

February 8, 2016
It may be possible to increase the neuron reserve of the hippocampus – and thus improve preconditions for learning – by promoting neurogenesis via sustained aerobic exercise such as running

Study highlights the importance of physical activity and aerobic exercise for healthy brain function

December 2, 2015
Regardless of gender, young adults who have greater aerobic fitness also have greater volume of their entorhinal cortex, an area of the brain responsible for memory. Better aerobic fitness however does not appear to impact ...

Recommended for you

Decoding the chemistry of fear

March 19, 2018
Ask a dozen people about their greatest fears, and you'll likely get a dozen different responses. That, along with the complexity of the human brain, makes fear—and its close cousin, anxiety—difficult to study. For this ...

Better understanding amyotrophic lateral sclerosis by looking at how cells change

March 19, 2018
It took eight long years of research, but now an international team led by neuroscientists at Université de Montréal has discovered a basic molecular mechanism that better helps understand how Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic ...

Breakthrough discovery in neurotransmission

March 15, 2018
Samir Haj-Dahmane, Ph.D., senior research scientist at the University at Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions, has discovered how certain neurotransmitters are transported and reach their targets in the brain, which could ...

Study finds alcohol dampens brain waves associated with decision-making but not motor control

March 15, 2018
We all know that alcohol impairs our judgement, alertness and performance on tasks requiring attention, but the mechanism behind booze's effect on cognition still isn't well-understood. Now, a new study led by psychologists ...

Research reveals brain mechanism involved in language learning

March 15, 2018
Learning a new language may be more of a science than an art, a University of Sussex study finds.

New research sheds light on underlying cause of brain injury in stroke

March 15, 2018
New research shows how the novel drug QNZ-46 can help to lessen the effects of excess release of glutamate in the brain – the main cause of brain injury in stroke.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.