Anima Sana In Corpore Sano. Besides being the Latin phrase for which the shoe company Asics based its name off of, it’s a phrase I happen to base my life around. Translated into English, the phrase reads, “Sound Mind, Sound Body.” It’s the ancient Greek and Roman belief that that actively training your body sharpens your mind and vice-versa.
The scientific world is full of examples and studies showing this basic idea to be true. Our mental health is irrevocably tied to the well-being of our bodies in a way that extends much further than women thinking they need to look like models and men getting injections for bigger calves (seriously, who does that?)
This particular study published in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience comes from the University of Illinois and shows that regular exercise makes old minds grow young again. What’s more, it suggests that the type of exercise and how long you stick with it makes a considerable difference. Simply walking for an hour three times per week did not create the level of brain gains that a mixed session of non-aerobic flexibility, toning and balance exercises (FTB for short) combined with yoga imparted to the participants. Though both forms of exercises showed significant improvements in the mental abilities of older participants after one year, the FTB program showed improvements after just six months.
Researchers gathered one group of young adults between 18 and 35 years old and a second group of lazy elderly adults between 55 and 80 years old. Lazy in that they hadn’t been physically active twice for at least 30 minutes in the past six months. They then used an fMRI machine to view the activity of the Default Mode Network (DMN), fronto-executive network (FE) and fronto-parietal (FP) networks of their brains. These networks connect different areas of the brain to function in a way that evidence supports is relevant to the types of tasks on which they were tested.
These tasks included verbal short-term memory, working memory and their executive control processes, which controls other cognitive functions in order to plan, make decisions, think abstractly, correct errors and much more.
These initial tests provided a baseline to compare how much these skills improved and the changes to their brain functions that resulted from six months and one full year’s worth of an exercise regimen. The fMRI brain scans of the young adults were taken in order to determine if any changes moved the elderly brains further away from a typical, younger brain or made them more similar.
After a year of the exercise regemin, the results were clear. Both walking and the FTB routine made a significant difference in the elderly adult’s cognitive abilities, proving that the ancient Greeks and Romans were on to something. And as I mentioned earlier, the FTB routine made more of a difference in a shorter amount of time. The researchers theorize that this is because the tasks of watching an instructor and mimicking their movements, as well as constantly changing activities, provided a stimulus that was more similar to the types of tasks they were being asked to complete.
Further, their brains were making significant strides towards becoming more similar to those of the young adults. Old networks and communication passages were revived, creating bigger and more intricate networks. It isn’t clear whether or not these new channels were built based on the activities that stimulated their growth, however. The researchers suggest further, directed studies in order to determine if practicing a certain skill along with exercising will strengthen the specific networks associated with that skill, or if there is just random, general repair of old networks.
Either way, the results are clear. An active lifestyle won’t just keep your body looking younger, it will keep your mind sharp as well.