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The brain already benefits from moderate physical activity, study shows: Brain regions with high oxygen demand show the largest effects

Even moderate physical activity has a positive effect on the brain. DZNE researchers led by Dr. Dr. Ahmad Aziz deduce this from examinations of 2,550 participants of the Bonn “Rhineland Study.” According to their findings, certain areas of the brain are larger in physically active individuals than in those who are less active. In particular, brain regions that have a relatively high oxygen demand benefit from this effect. The research results are published in Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Exercise keeps body and mind healthy — but little is known about exactly how and where physical activity affects our brains. “In previous research, the brain was usually considered as a whole,” says Fabienne Fox, neuroscientist and lead author of the current study. “Our goal was to take a more detailed look at the brain and find out which regions of the brain physical activity impacts most.”

Extensive Data from the Rhineland study

For their research, Fox and colleagues used data from the Rhineland Study, a large-scale population-based study conducted by DZNE in the Bonn city area. Specifically, they analyzed physical activity data from 2,550 volunteers aged 30 to 94 years, as well as brain images obtained by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). To sample physical activity, the study participants wore an accelerometer on their upper thigh for seven days. The MRI scans provided information particularly on brain volume and thickness of the cortex.

The More Active, the Greater the Effects

“We were able to show that physical activity had a noticeable effect on almost all brain regions investigated. Generally, we can say that the higher and more intense the physical activity, the larger the brain regions were, either with regard to volume or cortical thickness,” Fabienne Fox summarizes the research results. “In particular, we observed this in the hippocampus, which is considered the control center of memory. Larger brain volumes provide better protection against neurodegeneration than smaller ones.” However, the dimensions of the brain regions do not increase linearly with physical activity. The research team found the largest, almost sudden volume increase when comparing inactive and only moderately physically active study participants — this was particularly evident in older individuals over the age of 70.

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