Back in March, I predicted a fitness boom following a huge Newsweek cover story on exercise and the brain (Brain Improvement to Spark Fitness Boom). I’m still waiting. My own health club hasn’t had an observable influx of older members and, more significantly, I haven’t see any ads that make the link between exercise and brain fitness. Newsweek must be wondering if anyone got the message the first time, because they have returned to the topic with a new, lengthy commentary by Dean Ornish, M.D., Bigger Brains, Better Genes.

Until about nine years ago it was thought that you were born with a certain number of neurons, and they tended to decrease in number as you got older. The best you could hope to do was to slow the rate at which you lost brain cells.

Fortunately, it’s not true. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and at Columbia University showed that older adults continue to generate new neurons at virtually any age. Earlier this year these researchers found that in addition to growing new neurons, exercise doubled blood flow to the brain. A study published last year by researchers at the University of Illinois reported that just walking for three hours per week for only three months caused so many new neurons to grow that it actually increased the size of people’s brains.

Best of all, the region of the brain that grew the most was the hippocampus, the part most involved with memory and cognition. After only three months, those who exercised had brain volumes typical of people who were three years younger! Also, the new neurons tend to find their way to well-established existing connections and replace ones that are damaged or nonfunctioning. Those who showed the most improvement in fitness also showed the greatest enhancement in memory. The authors concluded, “These results suggest that cardiovascular fitness is associated with the sparing of brain tissue in aging humans…”

Other studies have shown that older adults who exercise regularly have better memory, are better at going from one mental task to another, and can focus and concentrate better than those who are sedentary. In other words, exercise makes older people more intelligent.

With this kind of data out there, one would think that health clubs and exercise equipment makers would be targeting middle aged and older customers. This customer group has two important things going for it:

  1. They are concerned about cognitive decline in later years
  2. They tend to have lots of disposable income

Pitching this group should be like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel. Nintendo’s Brain Age game has been hugely popular, with a lot less research to back up its efficacy. I don’t think fancy neuromarketing analysis is needed – marketers just need a catchy slogan to draw people into the ad, toss out a few study conclusions (complete with Ivy League university names), and show how their program or product duplicates the conditions which caused brain enhancement.

I hate to remind myself (and my readers!) of a failed prediction, but I’m not ready to write this one off completely yet. I think as this information percolates through the world of family physicians, they’ll add it to their justification for telling patients to get more exercise. The combination of avoiding cognitive decline and perhaps even improving brain function may be a lot more persuasive to reluctant patients than the important but more nebulous area of cardiovascular health. The next time I report on this topic, I expect to have some examples of brain-oriented ads for fitness services and products. (Have you seen any? If so, please post a comment or email me.)

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