Last month I had the opportunity to attend the European College of Sport Science Congress in Essen, Germany. There were over 2,500 delegates from 84 countries, and I was excited to be able to share our research on the effects of a neuromotor exercise program on mental age in children. We found that with a six week, four days per week, 20 minutes per day exercise program, the children's mental age increased over 11 months on average. We also found significant improvement in balance, coordination, motor skills, and retained reflexes. This study is part of what led to the creation of Brain Pump™, and we continue to use results from the latest neuroscience research to improve the program. I will try to summarize what I learned at the conference from some of the top researchers in the world on the effects of exercise on the brain.
Is aerobic exercise or coordinative exercise (exercise that promotes physical coordination) better for inhibiting ADHD symptoms in children? First, it is already well established that exercise helps both children and adults with ADHD, so current research is focusing more on what type of exercise and dosage. Aerobic exercise and coordinative exercise were both effective, but aerobic was better. My question is what if you combine the two? Based on the results we see in Brain Pump™, I think it is a powerful combination.
Is low motor competence (lack of physical coordination) a barrier for being physically active? Yes, and especially for girls. It is very important for children to play and engage in a wide variety of physical activities at a young age to build a strong foundation of fundamental movement for a lifetime of activity. The researchers found that motor competence is directly related to physical activity, sedentary time, and obesity.
How do different types of exercise effect the brain? We already know that aerobic exercise increases levels of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor) which, according to neuroscientists is basically fertilizer for the brain. Researchers found that increasing the amount of time, or increasing the intensity level, both increase production of BDNF. Strength training was not found to increase BDNF. However, both aerobic training and strength training were shown to improve cognition, so the scientists set out to find out why. It turns out that strength training increases cognition through a different pathway- IGF-1/IGF-1R and AKJ. I have no idea what that means, but I'm told that it has to do with growth hormones in the brain. The bottom line is that both types of exercise increase neurotransmitters and neurogenesis (growing new brain cells) and lead to long term positive changes in the brain.
What is the importance of an enriched environment? It is crucial. The brain needs some challenges to grow. We need to be with people and try new things. In a one-year exercise program involving subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the group that did not exercise got worse, the group that did stretching and toning got slightly better, and the group that did aerobic exercise got significantly better. They also found that more physically fit = better cognitive performance. So, as we age and start experiencing some cognitive impairment, the best thing we can do is get out with other people and exercise.
Based on these findings, the best way to pump up your brain is through a combination of aerobic exercise, strength training, and coordinative exercise that is challenging, in a fun environment with other people. There are great benefits to engaging in a wide variety of physical skills starting at a young age, and the best way to stay mentally sharp through life is to keep on moving!
Erin Reilly is a co-owner of NeuroKinetic Solutions, LLC and co-founder of Brain Pump™. She is also a professor in the Kinesiology Department at Auburn University Montgomery.