Exercise and Brain Health

exerciseAccording to the Exercise and Brain Health: Good Points to Remember article in the December 27, 2012 issue of Bipolar Network News, “(…) exercise is extremely important in (…) helping to improve depressed mood, increasing cardiovascular fitness, and maintaining healthy cognition.” It is also suggested that aerobic fitness may increase the size of the hippocampus which in turn decreases risk factors for depression, age-related memory loss and mild cognitive impairment progressing to Alzheimer’s dementia. Two other very important methods used to maintain or increase the volume of the hippocampus include appropriate treatment with antidepressants or lithium. While exercise is key to overall health and decreasing depression, preventing depressive episodes is critical because having more prior depressions is associated with greater cognitive dysfunction, and some evidence points to this also leading to decreased volume of the hippocampus.

Methods that help to protect the hippocampus:

  1. Unipolar depressed patients on antidepressants tend to be able to maintain or increase the volume of their hippocampus with aging.
  2. Lithium increases hippocampus volume in bipolar patients, and a Danish study suggests that patients who renew their lithium prescriptions are less likely to receive a diagnosis of dementia in old age.
  3. Long-term maintenance for unipolar and bipolar patients under doctor supervision helps to prevent depression and maintain or protect the volume of the hippocampus.
  4. Exercise: a sufficient number of positive controlled studies have shown that exercise can be helpful as an antidepressant while also preventing age-related volume loss of the hippocampus.

While it can be challenging to find motivation to exercise during depression, it can be helpful to remind oneself that it will feel good and that even small steps make a difference. A walk around the block, or walking 10 minutes in one direction and turning around walking 10 minutes in the other direction, can be simple ways to begin exercising and it is easy to build by progressively increasing distance and time. Choosing enjoyable activities increases motivation to exercise regularly, whether walking, hiking, dancing, cycling, swimming, sports or other forms of exercise. Finding people to exercise with, or a dog to walk regularly, can be motivating as well.

Exercise helps to lift moods and combined with good dietary habits  helps with weight control which is often a challenge during depression. Exercise also helps generate new neurons and may increase some higher-level cognitive processes that require fine discrimination between choices which can motivate better choices for one’s wellbeing. Exercise is not only enjoyable, it can also be very good for the hippocampus, cognition, depression, cardiovascular health, weight maintenance.