A Blog from The Panel of Experts
By Dr. Michael L. Smith – Functional Medicine – Nutrition and Chiropractic HEALTHcare.
I recently had the pleasure of watching a multi-part TV series about the human brain hosted by Charlie Rose. One of the things I came away with was that the mind and body are not separate entities, but rather cohesive units. The health of the body and brain are so intimately related that if one fails, the effect on the other can be devastating. In other words, what’s good for the body is good for the brain.
Let’s take the case of exercise. About 2,400 years ago the Greek philosopher Plato said, “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 two means, man can attain perfection”. The main reason that exercise makes us feel better is the positive effect it has on our brain functions.
Exercise can influence mood, attention, and anxiety. The effects of exercise can also support brain growth factors and protect against negative symptoms of chronic stress that manifest as premature aging of the brain and increased inflammation. These symptoms have recently been cited as one of a myriad of causes of cognitive decline and dementia (i.e. Alzheimer’s disease). Therefore, to keep our brains performing at the highest levels, we need to exercise!
In the reception area of my office there is a picture of a plump, sedentary individual watching TV from a familiar recliner. In one hand is a slice of pepperoni pizza and in the other is a beer. The broadcast tells us “A new study suggests that everyday activities count as exercise…” He proudly proclaims, “Let’s see…I’m eating pizza, drinking beer and watching TV. So apparently…. I’m a tri-athlete.” Unfortunately, this scenario is far too prevalent in our country today. There is an epidemic of obesity, especially amongst children, that gravely threatens their health. A recent study showed that if the current trend continues, our children’s generation would be the first to have a decreased life expectancy as compared to ours!
One of the most spectacular case studies I have read is a story about a revolutionary physical education program undertaken by the entire 19,000 students of the Naperville, Illinois school district. The students’ commitment to exercise not only improved their fitness levels but also helped decrease obesity levels to around 3% (the national average is over 30%). As an added benefit, an international standards test cited cognitive performances skyrocketing, with eighth graders testing first in the world in science and sixth in math.
Exercise improves our ability to absorb and process new information, thereby increasing the brain’s ability to learn. This is aided by plasticity, the process where the brain can improve upon or alter existing connections, make new ones, or help stimulate the production of new brain cells. It does this by naturally increasing BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF has been called the “super fertilizer” of the brain because it improves neuron function by helping grow and facilitate new connections while also protecting against cell death.
Exercise can also correct a major source of abnormal brain aging and prevent insulin imbalances. We’ve also known for many years that exercise influences the same chemicals produced in our brains by many common antidepressants. A study done at Duke University in 1999 called SMILE(Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise) concluded that exercise was just as effective as Zoloft for the treatment of mild depression in both the short and long term.
So get off of that recliner, use the remote less and simply start to move. Your genes, emotions, body, and brain are all dying to get physical!