Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

If you’re gonna drink, you better run!

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I’m continually amazed by the sheer amount of research that confirms the many benefits of aerobic exercise.  We all know that excessive drinking is bad for you, but some new research sheds light on the specific ways exercise can counteract its effects.

Consuming alcohol weakens mitochondria within the neurons in the hippocampus, which is the brain’s memory center.  Mitochondria help produce energy within cells, and their impairment can damage or kill brain cells.  Two recent studies examined the effects of running after alcohol consumption in rodents. The results were notable;  aerobic exercise was found to nearly erase the negative effects of alcohol. The damage was mitigated to the point where the brain cells appeared the same as in the control group that did not exercise.

In one study,  rats were divided into 2 groups, one of which was given large amounts of alcohol once a week, while the other was given saline.  Half of this group ran an average of 2 hours, 3 times a week, while the control group remained sedentary for these 11 weeks. The sedentary rats given alcohol had almost 20 percent fewer neurons in their hippocampi than the control animals. The rats who were made to work out, though, had as many neurons as the controls, even if they were given alcohol. Another important result was that the sedentary mice who did not consume alcohol had weaker mitochondria, thus impacting the health of their neurons. To learn more, go to  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/well/move/jogging-the-brain.html?_r=0

Two obvious questions are: How does this translate to humans, and how much alcohol must be consumed to damage our neurons? It should also be noted that the rodents were made to do intensive aerobic exercise, which would likely translate to humans reaching or exceeding their target heart rate. Light exercise may not have the same effects.  Keep in mind that alcohol also has negative effects on our liver and other organs.  So even if neuronal health can be helped by exercising after alcohol consumption, these results should not be taken as a license to drink heavily.

However, preliminary findings suggest that exercise can play a major role in hanging on to our brain cells, even after drinking. That’s enough evidence to be motivating, especially through the holiday season.  Those brisk walks after holiday parties or during the week just became more than a good idea – it may well save some brain cells !

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