Exercise and Neurogenesis

                                                                  by Lakshya Nagar

As spring break has come to an end, the obligations students had, prior to the break, await. Unfortunately, there is no readjusting period. The exams, classes, papers, labs, and homework will once again overload the weekly lives of students. It is therefore common for students to take advantage of any free time to simply relax and be lazy. Although this practice is understandable, recent studies have shown the benefits of remaining active on both cognitive abilities and overall health.

Our neurons die, but they also proliferate in a process known as neurogenesis. Neurogenesis in humans occurs in many regions within the brain, but is notorious for occurring in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a critical component for learning and memory, for it is involved in the formation of short and long-term memories. It is therefore extremely vital and astonishing that new neurons are constantly forming within our hippocampus throughout our lives. 

What is unique about this hippocampal neurogenesis is that it goes through both a proliferating and survival phase. As the cells are forming they are also dividing, increasing the number of new neurons. The neurons, however, also go through a survival phase, the “use it or lose it” dilemma.  New neurons that do not form synapses in the brain will undergo cell death. Recent studies have already shown that the survival phase is effected by different factors. Age and stress have shown to decrease the number of neurons that survive during neurogenesis. Furthermore, spatial learning has been shown to increase cell survival during this falling phase.

Although it is great to know the effects stress and learning can have on cell death, what factors can possibly increase the proliferation phase? Recent findings, including studies done at St. Jude Children’s Hospital, point to exercise as being an effective method for increasing neurogenesis. For example, research subjects, including Parkinson’s patients, have shown significant increases in brains cells after undergoing two months of aerobic exercises. How can this association between exercise and neurogenesis be applied to an academic setting such as college?

Dr. John B. Bartholomew, Interim Chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, is a strong advocate for implementing physical activity in academic institutions such as elementary schools.  “We have a number studies that show a benefit of physical activity on attentional and behavioral control in the classroom, which, in turn, can impact academic performance.” Although it’s not quite clear whether aerobic or anaerobic activity is more beneficial for academic performance, studies have shown that “intensity is key” regardless of the type of workout. Therefore a “mere break from the traditional classroom is not as beneficial as larger impact activities.”

Why should a college student care about neurogenesis and exercise? Although a break every now and again is recommended to remain sane, exercise enhances student’s performance through their busy academic lives. The proliferation phase in their hippocampus will gradually increase with more exercise. Assuming a student can manage their time and stress, and they are constantly involved in their learning, their survival phase should remain optimal. The daily exercise will therefore continue to provide new neurons for the student, as connections are made between concepts in classes. Ultimately, this will result in both a healthier and smarter student.

Finally, why is it important to immediately implement an exercise plan in our lives if we do not have one already? Will students become obese, unhealthy, lethargic, and/or suffer in the classroom? “The issue is not if it is a problem now,” says Dr. Bartholomew, “the key is how do we prevent this from being a problem as students graduate and take on jobs and a family?” It should be clear that after college, there will only be more obligations and even less time to fulfill them. If students begin now, it will better position them to be “active across their lives.” Hence, it is important to constantly make time for physical activity between academic responsibilities, because in the end many aspects of one’s life will be enhanced.

Student Spotlight: Tahseen Karim

Public Health Week 2013