Yet another study has found that exercise is a great way to improve brain health, and might evendin be a key tool in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Brain imaging shows yellow and reddish pixels representing areas where the functionality of white matter is associated with higher fitness levels. The images are based on cumulative data from patients in a study showing potential links between physical fitness and deterioration of white matter. Image credits: UT Southwestern.

Mens sana in corpore sano — the Latin phrase which can be literally translated as “a healthy mind in a healthy body” — was used in ancient times to indicate the importance of keeping both the body and the mind active and healthy. Ancient Romans believed that physical exercise is an important part of mental wellbeing and boy, were they right!

A growing number of studies is indicating that keeping the body fit helps the mind and conversely, neglecting physical activity can be detrimental. In this case, research from UT Southwestern’s O’Donnell Brain Institute suggests that the lower the fitness level, the faster the deterioration of vital nerve fibers in the brain.

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“This research supports the hypothesis that improving people’s fitness may improve their brain health and slow down the aging process,” said Dr. Kan Ding, the neurologist from the Peter O’Donnell Jr. Brain Institute that authored the study.

The study focused on white matter — areas of the central nervous system (CNS) that are mainly made up of a type of axons (nerve fibers). Unlike most studies, which have participants estimate their own fitness, this one measured it directly, by analyzing the maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max). Researchers also used participants’ brain imaging to measure the functionality of each patient’s white matter, in addition to filling out memory and other cognitive tests.

Taking all these things together, Ding and colleagues were able to establish a correlation between brain health and overall levels of fitness, finding that people who were fitter also had healthier white matter.

“Evidence suggests that what is bad for your heart is bad for your brain. We need studies like this to find out how the two are intertwined and hopefully find the right formula to help prevent Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr. Rong Zhang of UT Southwestern, who oversees the clinical trial associated with this study.

However, there are still many questions to be answered. For instance, what is the mechanism through which physical activity keeps the brain healthy, and what levels of fitness are required to sufficiently stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia? Those are all questions to be answered in future studies.

Journal References: Ding et al. Cardiorespiratory Fitness and White Matter Neuronal Fiber Integrity in Mild Cognitive Impairment. DOI: 10.3233/JAD-170415