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Wellness Talk: Exercise helps the brain

When you exercise, you can think more clearly, perform better and feel better, and there is hard science to support this.

In fact, research shows that as your body moves, your nervous system releases chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, which make you feel calm, happy and euphoric.

More recently, scientists have found that exercise can even help create new brain cells. Believe it or not, your brain has about 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons, which essentially tell your body what to do.

At one time it was thought neurons died off as a person aged and new ones couldn't be made. But findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that cell creation in some parts of the brain can be easily spawned with exercise.

These positive results occur almost immediately (usually within minutes of exercising). However, scientists note that to keep those benefits, you have to get regular exercise. Within a month of inactivity, the neuron-boosting effects begin to decline.

Here are some benefits to exercise:

• Exercise improves thinking and memory. As we get older, our brain shrinks in size, which affects memory and other cognitive functions. Research published in the journal Neurology suggests that older people who regularly walked had larger brains and better memory than those who did not walk as much. And the benefits are not limited to just adults. University of Illinois researchers have found that physical activity may enhance the academic achievements of children by improving their attention and working memory skills.

• Exercise enhances all kinds of performance. Experts have noted that exercise improves your brain immediately by raising your focus for two to three hours afterward. Thus, if you have a challenging task or project at work, take a walk or squeeze in a workout beforehand. You'll be at your best when it's show time.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that exercising while listening to music is even better for your brain. It's remarkable how the two build on each other.

Let's take a moment to look at some more facts.

Researchers from Ohio State recently studied patients in a cardiac rehabilitation program. Each of the participants was tested for mental performance after exercising without music, and exercising with music. On average, the participants performed more than twice as well on a verbal fluency test after listening to music while exercising than they did after exercising without the music.

Specifically, study participants listened to classical music. However, researchers believe many similar benefits could be gained by listening to any kind of music while you exercise. So, the next time you go for a walk be sure to plug in. Not only will it lift your spirits, it will boost your brain function.

As you move forward, consider this: For substantial health benefits, adults should do at least 150 minutes (two hours and 30 minutes) a week of moderate intensity, or 75 minutes (one hour and 15 minutes) a week of vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity. Aerobic activity should be performed in episodes of at least 10 minutes, and preferably, it should be spread throughout the week.

For additional and more extensive health benefits, adults should increase their aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate intensity, or 150 minutes a week of vigorous intensity, aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.

• Adults should also do muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

If you are an older adult and cannot do 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity a week because of chronic conditions, it is important to be as physically active as your abilities and conditions allow.

And, as always, if you have any questions or health concerns, check with your health care provider.