Waxing physically and philosically...

After literally years of deliberation, and as a result of some delicate and some less delicate prodding, this blog is my effort to organize - to bring together - my thoughts about my work as a conductor and as a personal trainer, to rant and rave as necessary, to celebrate the little things and the larger moments of brilliance, and to share some conductive magic and life lessons gained through 'waxing physically and philosophically'.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Exercise and the brain...

 Exercise recommendations for people with neurological conditions like MS and Parkinson's have changed drastically in recent years.  We know a lot more about neurological conditions, we know a lot more about exercise, and we know a lot more about neurology - and we know that we are only at the tip of the iceberg about what there is to know about all of these things and their interactions.  It is actually really important to understand that exercise recommendations have changed for everybody - the general population, athletes, people wanting to lose weight, older adults, people managing injuries, people with illnesses - so it really should be no surprise that the recommendations have changed for people with neurological conditions.  

When it comes to exercise as a tool for promoting brain health, it actually doesn't matter if you do or do not have a neurological condition -- the exercise recommendations are the same.  Though we talk about the benefits of exercise for people with neurological conditions, it needs to be made clear that these guidelines are for everybody who might be looking at exercise as something that might discourage disease progression, that might protect our brain cells from ageing, that might encourage our brains to continue to adapt throughout our lives, or that might promote healing of damage or injured brain tissue, the exercise.    The right exercise may in fact help us stave off or delay onset of neurological conditions by making our brains healthier and more able to fight disease, and exercise habits learned and enjoyed before the onset of a neurological condition  are easier to sustain and adapt than to introduce after a diagnosis.  

When we are talking about exercise and brain health, we are talking about more than efficiency of oxygen supply or muscle strength or mental health or cardiovascular endurance.  We are asking if exercise might promote neuroprotection, promote neuroplasticity, or even encourage neuroregeneration.  And more and more, based on the little bits and pieces that we do know, we think that the answer to that question is yes.  However, just as we know that certain exercise is better for promoting muscle growth or weight loss, we also know that exercise for brain health needs to meet certain criteria.  Let's explore this further.

One of the new guidelines for people with neurological conditions is that at least for short intervals, exercise should be at a high intensity - high enough to get their heart pumping and for them to feel puffed.  This is because when exercising at this intensity our muscles produce a nifty little protein called cathepsin B.  Cathepsin B travels to the brain, and in the presence of cathepsin B, our brain cells start to produce neurotrophins which kick start new cell growth - also known as neurogenesis.  The research also indicates that long term consistency of exercise involving periods of high intensity, over weeks, months, and years, is more important than the duration of individual training sessions when it comes to this effect.  

We also know that strenuous exercise might influence how certain genes function in the brain.  For example, strenuous exercise encourages our brains to make a substance called "brain derived neurotrophic factor" or "BDNF".  When BDNF levels are low, we are more likely to see cognitive decline but when BDNF levels are sufficient or high we see brain cells grow and remain healthy and vigorous and we see more efficient connections between brain cells allowing the brain to function better.  But that isn't all - if someone is sedentary the genes responsible for BDNF production may be muted or get gunked up by other molecules.  However, during higher intensity exercise ketones are produced.  Ketones -- byproducts of our bodies using fat as an energy source -- protect the BDNF gene by stopping other molecules from being able to gunk that gene up - an example of how exercise can be neuroprotective.

The idea of neuroplasticity is even more exciting - especially because the guidelines and reasonings are 'more tangible' and less 'neurochemical'.  Neuroplasticity refers to notion that our brains are capable of change over our lifetimes, that our brains reorganise themselves physically and functionally in response to learning, our environment, our behaviour, our thinking, our circumstances including injury or trauma, our motivation, and our needs.  Neuroplasticity is also, paradoxically, a scary idea - because in the same way that we can do positive things things to encourage our brains to be more adaptive and to grow and change, we can do negative things or do nothing which actually will reinforce negative changes and patterns.  By this token, "use it or lose it" really applies to brain health; if we use certain connections they will get stronger and more plentiful and the connections we do not use will weaken and wither. 

In order for exercise to promote neuroplasticity it needs to be challenging, frequent, mentally and emotionally engaging, reinforced by positive feedback and positive results, fun, specific, worthwhile, and relevant or goal specific.  This type of exercise includes trying new things, leaning new skills, having fun, and being fully present and engaged while we are doing so.  Regardless of whether we do or do not have a neurological condition, this type of exercise is really important to brain health.   We are never too old for it, and from a human and psychological point of view it is exciting to think that by challenging ourselves and being engaged and having fun we are also promoting brain health.  

These are just some of the emerging ideas about exercise and brain health, and why the exercise guidelines for people with neurological conditions as well as those for the general population are changing.  It will be really exciting to follow the research in these areas over the next few years and to see how the health, fitness, and education practice shifts as a result.

Some light reference reading can be found here:

How Exercise May Help the Brain Grow Stronger

The 10 Fundamentals of Rewiring your Brain

Does this exercise protein boost your brain power?

Exercise triggers brain cell growth and improves memory, scientists prove

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