Can Physical Activity Prevent Brain Atrophy? Don’t Become a “Little Brain”

By Chris Centeno, MD /

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I remember the first time I heard about brain atrophy as a young doctor. It sounded so awful, after all, if there is one thing in your whole body you hope never gets smaller, it’s your brain! Now new research on preventing brain atrophy may help most of us avoid this fate!

Little Brains

One of my favorite movies of all time is “Defending Your Life”. In this movie, Albert Brooks’ character has passed on and finds himself in a pitstop before going to heaven. In this place, you have to defend, in a courtroom, a certain number of key moments from your life. Here he’s speaking to his defense attorney:

Big Brain Theory

Researchers know that, even under normal conditions, the human brain shrinks with age. Admittedly, this is a slow process. But this volume decline averages about 0.2 percent every year by the age of 60. And, maintaining brain volume is vital because too much shrinkage in brain mass is strongly associated with cognitive decline and conditions like dementia.

We’ve known that physical activity can stave off brain shrinkage, but the level of activity needed to be beneficial has not been well-researched.

Guidelines by experts like the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization typically recommend that healthy adults should get 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous activity. This translates to just over 21 minutes per day. According to the guidelines, for any brain benefit, adults should take a minimum of 10,000 steps daily.

Because the percentage of us who can meet those recommendations drops off severely between middle and older age (from age 40 to 69 years), what a team of researchers found is encouraging news.

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine have just completed a study that suggests you may not have to spend hours sweating at the gym to help prevent age-related changes in your brain.

For their study, the researchers asked their pool of middle-aged participants to wear a small, movement-detecting device (an accelerometer) for anywhere from three to eight days to measure their steps and energy expenditure. The volunteers’ brain volume was measured using MRI.

Brain Health is Do-Able

The results of the Boston study suggest that physical activity for brain health can:

• Fit your schedule: The study showed that moderate exercise (brisk walking) for about 10 to 20 minutes a day was associated with nearly 0.30 percent higher total brain volume when compared to less than ten minutes daily
• Fit your ability: The researchers found that every hour participants spent in only light physical activity was linked with 0.22 percent increased total brain volume
• Fit your surroundings: The volunteers taking at least 7,500 (not 10,000) steps daily were found to have larger brain volumes than those who averaged fewer daily steps

The researchers also estimated that each extra hour of light physical activity was linked with a decrease in brain aging of just over one year.

The upshot? It doesn’t take hours in a gym or running a marathon to help prevent brain atrophy! All you need is to get out there and get active. So don’t become a couch potato and a “little brain” all at the same time!

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Chris Centeno, MD

Regenexx Founder

Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications.
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