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Brain Trust

Exercise Isn't Just for Your Heart

Dolbec, Katherine, MD

doi: 10.1097/01.EEM.0000553480.24554.02
Brain Trust

Dr. Dolbec is an emergency physician at the University of Vermont Medical Center. She completed a fellowship in primary care sports medicine at Evergreen Sports Medicine Fellowship, also in Maine. She is a physician for the US Ski and Snowboard Team. Follow her on Twitter @DolbecKatie.

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You already know that exercise can keep your heart healthy, but how often do you think about its effect on your brain? The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in November included a comprehensive list of physical activity recommendations and was robustly evidence-based. (http://bit.ly/2RPF4eS.) Exercise benefits nearly every body system, the brain included. Many of the benefits highlighted were cognitive, psychiatric, and neurological, demonstrating the importance of the brain-body health connection.

How much exercise do you need to reap the maximum benefit? The guidelines suggest active play and physical activity throughout the day for children 3-5 years old. Children 6-17 are advised to engage in 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day at least three days a week, of which the majority should be aerobic. These children should also have at least three days of muscle-building activity a week and at least three days of bone-building activity a week.

Adults are advised to move more and sit less—150-300 minutes of moderate aerobic physical activity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate and vigorous physical activity spread across the week. You could walk briskly for 50 minutes six days a week, run for 30 minutes five days a week, or walk briskly 50 minutes three days and run 30 minutes three times a week. Additional health benefits are gained by participating in more than 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week.

You should also engage all of the major muscle groups in the body in moderate-intensity or greater-strength training activities at least twice a week for maximal health benefits. If you are an older adult, are pregnant or post-partum, or have chronic health problems or disabilities, the guidelines have specific recommendations for tailoring your physical activity.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of the health benefits of exercise across all organ systems, research shows that Americans are still markedly deficient in physical activity. The 2017 U.S. National Health Interview Survey found that nearly 47 percent of American adults did not meet the suggested guidelines for aerobic activity and a little more than 76 percent of American adults are not meeting the suggested guidelines for aerobic exercise and strength training. Only 28 percent of men and 19 percent of women reported activity amounts that meet suggested guidelines for aerobic and strength-training activities. That leaves approximately 80 percent of us who are not meeting the recommended amounts of physical activity required to maximally benefit from exercise. The report also outlined the evidence-based benefits of physical exercise for each organ system. (CDC. Tables 7A & 7B; http://bit.ly/2BjT8pJ.)

It is perhaps surprising that even the brain is kept substantially healthier with physical exercise. Physical activity in children aged 6-17 improves cognitive function, as it does for adults, who also see a reduced risk of dementia, further improved cognitive function immediately following bouts of aerobic activity, improved quality of life, reduced incidence of depression, improved sleep, and reduced feelings of anxiety and depression. Exercise is also beneficial for enhancing brain function in those with underlying comorbidities. It improves walking function and physical fitness for those with multiple sclerosis and enhances cognitive function for those with dementia or impaired executive function.

And these are only the known neurological and psychiatric benefits of exercise; many other benefits are seen across nearly all organ systems. All reported benefits are based on scientific literature demonstrating strong or moderate evidence, making these recommendations very powerful.

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