New evidence in neuroscience shows that physical exercise can help restore and even reverse the decline of brain functions, Véronique Morin reports.

“One and two and three …,” shouts the instructor, shoving her arms forcefully up and down and from one side to other, while pushing up her opposite knee to her chest in a move worthy of a contortionist. “Come on, you can do it! Don’t forget to breathe,” she adds, while exhaling.

To the beat of the music, a group aged 65 to 80 are desperately trying to follow her every move. They are hoping that exercise will make them feel healthier and keep trim, but little do they know that physical activity also has an impact on their brains. “We found that as little as 30 minutes of cardio three times a week can have an impact on the brain after just three months,” explains Louis Bherer, a neuroscientist at l’Université du Québec à Montréal and an expert in gerontology. “The key here is not intensity, but frequency.”

Of course, it is common sense to say that being physically active can help people live a healthier life. But strong scientific evidence is now emerging to prove that cardiovascular exercise, such as running, walking and swimming, can have a far more potent impact on the brain than simply making people feel good. “The question is: can we delay the effects of aging and even protect people from them through exercise? Our answer is: yes, we can,” says Bherer, who heads a group of researchers looking into this question.

It is a fact of life that aging leads to a slow decline of the mind. We naturally tend to become a little more forgetful and a little less organized. Although not all cognitive functions weaken, some higher or executive functions of the brain tend to go with age. The executive functions are mainly controlled by the frontal lobes of the brain and are responsible for planning, organizing and allowing us to respond quickly to unpredictable situations — being alert, if you will.

“Executive functions decline in humans as early as age 50 to 60, but we also see that their decline can be delayed with regular exercise,” says Bherer, who is following the lead of his former professor, Arthur F. Kramer of the University of Illinois. “I had a sense from the literature that sports can help the brain, but I did not know the full impact of this until we looked at it scientifically,” says Kramer, a former athlete. To prove it, gyms have been moved into his lab, and older people put to the test.

In a typical study, a control group remains physically inactive, while the other undergoes a simple aerobic training program. Both groups have their cognitive functions thoroughly tested prior to any training, then again at the completion of the study. “We take sedentary volunteers because it reflects a reality; that most people tend to become sedentary with age,” says Kramer. The results of his study brought satisfaction and surprise to the team. “We predicted it but when we started seeing images of brain scans, it was really like a eureka moment,” recalls Kirk Erickson, one of the collaborators of the Kramer group.

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