Austin is a fitness and exercise conscious community. Cold, rainy days of early Spring have us eager for warmer days and the opportunity to enjoy the parks and trails that Austin has to offer. We know that exercise offers many benefits to our health, but did you know it could help your brain?

Photo: Dr. David Sneed
Photo: Dr. David Sneed

A new study was published this month in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Researchers at the University of Jyvaskyla and other institutions in Finland looked into that country’s extensive FinnTwin16 database, which contains twins’ answers to questionnaires about their health and medical conditions, beginning when the pairs were 16 and repeated every few years afterward.

The researchers were looking for young adult identical twins in their early- to mid-20s whose exercise habits had substantially diverged after they had left their childhood homes. These twins were not easy to find. Most of the pairs had maintained remarkably similar exercise routines, despite living apart.

But eventually the researchers homed in on 10 pairs of male identical twins, one of whom regularly exercised, while the other did not.

The differences in their exercise routines had mostly begun within the past three years and it turned out that these genetically identical twins looked surprisingly different beneath the skin and skull. The sedentary twins had lower endurance capacities, higher body fat percentages, and signs of insulin resistance, signaling the onset of metabolic problems. The twins tended to have very similar diets, whatever their workout routines, so food choices were unlikely to have contributed to health differences.

The twins’ brains also were different. The active twins had significantly more grey matter than the sedentary twins, especially in areas of the brain involved in motor control and coordination. Presumably, all of these differences in the young men’s bodies and brains had developed during their few, brief years of divergent exercise routines, emphasizing just how rapidly and robustly exercising — or not — can affect health.

Several experts in brain health have weighed in on whether exercise can really help your brain health.

Patrick D. Lyden, MD, chair, department of neurology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles – “Exercise is definitely good for brain function. In fact, of all the strategies offered to prevent dementia, physical exercise has the best data to support it.”

Brendan Kelley, MD, a neurologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus – “Regular physical exercise has many health benefits that include decreasing the risk of diabetes, hypertension, stroke, and heart disease. Many large observational studies have demonstrated a reduced risk of incident dementia and reduced progression of cognitive decline among older adults who regularly exercise.”

Thomas Thesen, PhD, assistant professor, departments of neurology and radiology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City – “Prolonged aerobic exercise changes not only the brain’s physiology and anatomy, but also can lead to improvements in memory and cognition.”

Carl “Chip” Lavie, MD, FACC, medical director, cardiac rehabilitation, and prevention at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans – “Exercise training and higher fitness are associated with marked, usually greater than 50%, reductions in all of these measures of psychological stress and, more importantly, the increases in fitness are associated with marked reductions in the stress-induced increased mortality risks.”

Spring is just around the corner, make plans to enjoy our city’s exercise opportunities and improve not only your heart health, but also improve the health of your brain as well. See you on the hike and bike trail.