Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

What types of exercise benefit your brain the most?

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In this blog, you frequently read about the many ways that exercise benefits your mind and body. But are there certain types of exercise that can cause brain matter to respond more positively than others?  I’ve always advocated cross-training, which is any combination of cardiorespiratory, strength training, stretching or balancing exercises. Cross-training may include running, cycling, dancing, weight training, core strengthening (like pilates), and yoga. A new study has examined the effects of dance on the brain, specifically in the white matter, and the results are promising.

The white matter of the brain include the nerve fibers, called axons, which pass information between our neurons in the brain and spinal cord. As we age, there is a fraying of the brain’s internal wiring, which causes changes in memory and processing speed, among other functions.

The study, conducted by University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, took 174 healthy, but mostly sedentary, subjects between the ages of 60-79, and gave them pre- and post-tests of aerobic capacity and cognitive processing speed, measured by MRI. They were then divided into 4 groups and tasked with doing some form of physical activity 3 times a week for one hour. One group did brisk walking, another did brisk walking and took a nutritional supplement (beta-alanine), a third group performed strength, balance and stretching exercises, and the fourth group did country dancing, where they learned choreography set to music. The dance activity combined step sequencing with social interaction, as people switched partners, changed directions, and the group moved themselves into various formations.

For the full article see

The results yielded some expected, and some unexpected results. Expected changes were that all the participants showed some improvement in the integrity of certain structures in the brain. The unexpected results were that declines were seen over just 6 months in the quality of white matter, but this did not necessarily correlate with cognitive changes. Other unexpected changes were that the dance group showed the most substantial improvements, particularly in one aspect of the white matter, which has to do with processing speed.

The most substantial changes were seen in the fornix, which plays an “important role in the encoding, consolidation, and recall of declarative and episodic memory.” Along with episodic memory (Metzler-Baddeley et al., 2011), it also influences “working memory, motor performance and problem solving (Zahr et al., 2009)”  The full study, complete with the neurological analysis, can be seen at This article also details previous studies that compared the effect of various exercise regimens on brain structure and function.

The take-away is this: people who do less sitting and more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity on a consistent basis showed “less negative change in the FA (one measure of structural brain health) providing the first evidence of objectively measured lifestyle activities on change in white matter health.”

More specifically, activities like dance that combine physical, cognitive, and social aspects, seem to have a greater impact on one’s overall mental state. Dance also incorporates sensorimotor aspects, such as audio, visual, vestibular (balance) and kinesthetic (movement); these are based components that together have a mitigating effect on depression and memory loss. If you like to dance, maybe it’s time to incorporate it into your routine. Your brain and booty will thank you for it!

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