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One Simple Step to a Healthier Brain

Dr.Gary Small Gene Stone Default

The first of five conversations between brain expert Dr. Gary Small and health writer Gene Stone

Gene Stone: When I wrote Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick, I interviewed dozens of doctors. If I'd been writing about the secrets of people who keep their brain healthy, I probably could have just talked only to you. You've spent many years working on this subject.
Gary Small: I've always been fascinated by the brain and behavior. I studied and practiced psychotherapy early in my career, but went on to learn about modern brain imaging and genetic technologies to detect brain aging and Alzheimer's disease early in its course. Our research group now focuses on ways we can protect a healthy brain rather than trying to repair damage once it becomes extensive.
Stone: The first question that comes to mind then is, do you really believe there is a relationship between healthy lifestyle behaviors, such as exercise, and improving the mind's function?
Small: It's not a question of belief, it's a question of scientific evidence—and the evidence is compelling. Numerous studies indicate that our everyday behavior has an impact on how we think, how we feel, and how we remember.
Stone: Which kinds of behaviors have you looked into?
Small: There are four major areas of interest: physical conditioning, mental stimulation, nutrition, and stress management. Of course, there are overlapping areas, such as social engagement, which can include both mental stimulation and psychological support, a form of stress management.
Stone: Let's talk about the first area: physical conditioning, where there seems to be the strongest scientific evidence to prove the case that physical exercise is good for your brain. How much exercise do you need to help the brain function?
Small: The research has shown that you don't have to be a triathlete. For example, a study at the University of Western Australia in Melbourne showed that walking just 20 minutes a day is associated with a lower risk for Alzheimer's disease. Other studies have shown that when you exercise, your brain becomes more efficient: neural connections are stronger as a result of aerobic exercise. The reason? Exercise encourages your heart to pump oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells. It also causes your body to produce what's known as BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, which causes your neurons to sprout branches, so that the brain cells communicate more effectively with each other.
Stone: What else does exercise do for the brain?
Small: It induces our bodies to produce endorphins; these are the chemicals that cause what's known as Runners High—they are our body's natural antidepressants.
Stone: Is it just aerobic exercise that helps the brain?
Small: No—new studies are showing that strength training provides benefits as well—although at this point scientists are not sure why. It may be that when you are working out with weights, you are focusing on form, and that provides a mental stimulation that helps the brain.
Stone: Given all this research you've been doing on exercise and the brain, what do you do?
Small: I try to get cardiovascular conditioning every day, maybe 10 to 20 minutes—usually on the elliptical machine or walking the hills near my house. And that's not including all the walking and the stair climbing I do—I try to get exercise wherever I can throughout the day. I do whatever I can to get myself a little out of breath. I also go swimming whenever it's convenient. And I do some strength training—I do a routine every morning that includes some yoga positions, some stretching, and some weight training.
Stone: Do you recommend any exercises people can do away from the gym?
Small: Absolutely. In my office I keep a piece of paper with a list of exercises you can just do just about anywhere—most of these are arm and leg stretches and routines to build strength and avoid fatigue and soreness from spending hours at your computer. Many of these are detailed in The Alzheimer's Prevention Program. For instance, put your hands behind your head and just stand up and sit down in your chair. That strengthens your knees, and if you do enough repetitions, you get a cardiovascular workout as well. Working in an office is no excuse not to get some exercise!

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