Why is Exercise Good for the Brain? An Evolutionary Neuroscience PerspectivesteemCreated with Sketch.

in science •  last year

An Evolutionary Neuroscience Perspective

We recently started a discussion on the utility of evolutionary neuroscience on current applications and understanding. In that discussion, I brought up some of what I see to be pitfalls in evolutionary neuroscience: falling for the guiles of reverse inference and letting your imagination run too far away. Today, I wanted to extend the discussion to a recent paper that shows how evolutionary neuroscience can lead to useful, testable hypothesis generation.

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Most people know from experience that the body is adaptive, and so it is pretty intuitive that exercise is good for some organ systems. For example, if we exercise, our muscles use oxygen more quickly, so our heart needs to beat faster and harder to keep up with our muscles’ needs. Therefore, the heart gets stronger, and vessels grow to provide more blood to muscles. More surprisingly, there has been a wealth of recent research on the benefits of exercise on the brain, especially in the context of aging. Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, seems to preserve cognitive function in old age, and may provide a cognitive advantage across the lifespan.

So what's the news?

A new paper by David Raichlen and Gene Alexander, describes a new framework for taking on this perplexing question about why exercise seems to be so unexpectedly good for the brain. This paper takes an evolutionary neuroscience approach, looking at how a hunter-gatherer lifestyle may have affected the “adaptive capacity” of the human brain.

Their idea is basically that humans at some point became active hunter-gatherers, which led to tasks that were simultaneously physically demanding and cognitively demanding. Therefore, human physiology evolved to link exercise to cognition.

This idea makes good use of the what is known about evolutionary neuroscience to make testable hypotheses for future exercise research. This would be very useful to understanding the details of exercise effects on cognition. For example, the framework would predict that naturally sedentary animals would not have negative cognitive effects of a sedentary lifestyle (or put in opposite terms, would not see benefits of being more active).

The framework also makes some proposals about the ideal exercise for a human: that moderate aerobic exercise (the kind you get from gathering and hunting) in congruence with cognitively demanding strategic and spatial tasks would be the ideal way to enhance brain function.

I like the idea because it makes some counter-intuitive hypotheses. First, it seems more intuitive to think that if exercise improves cognition, exercising harder would improve the cognition more. Their hypothesis is that moderate exercise would be the most effective. Secondly, most researchers have focused on aerobic exercise interventions of walking, jogging, or riding a stationary bike without much concurrent cognitive stimulation. If researchers discovered that difficult mental tasks interacted with physical activity in a synergistic way, that may change a lot of people’s exercise regimens. Personally, I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone runs for a long time instead of playing more cognitively complex sports and games in the first place ;-)

Sources:

University of Arizona (2017, June 26). Brain Evolved to Need Exercise. NeuroscienceNew. Retrieved June 26, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/evolution-brain-exercise-6982/

Image 1: By Gruban - File:Algerien 5 0049.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23326304
Image 3: Photo Credit: Shane Sharp, Europe Regional Medical Command Public Affairs

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Good to see some more serious content on steemit! We're in dire need of articles with greater substance, or I worry this thing is gonna implode.

If I may, I would suggest you simplify some of the language in your articles. Not that any word is abstruse per se, but some words (like "framework"), that have specific meaning in the science that is being explored, could be replaced to offer a more flowing reading experience that might appeal more to the general reader.

(And note that I'm guilty of being abstruse myself oftentimes!)

The framework also makes some proposals about the ideal exercise for a human: that moderate aerobic exercise (the kind you get from gathering and hunting) in congruence with cognitively demanding strategic and spatial tasks would be the ideal way to enhance brain function.

I like that you're being specific about this, because the generic word 'exercise', in the context of our current culture, might give the impression that what's required is something like crossfit! In actual fact, hunter-gatherers do very little prolonged intense exercise. When they hunt for instance, they prefer to injure their prey, then track it down, walking lazily, conserving as much energy (a valuable commodity) as possible, and then engage in short bursts of intense activity when they go in for the kill. That's quite the contrary of the modern man who wakes up in the early morning and goes for a 1-to-2-hour run that will eventually destroy his knees.

Another thing the hunter-gatherers might do is work in groups, or work intelligently to trap their prey. In other words, 'laziness' (or 'energy-conservancy') is always their goal!

Personally, I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone runs for a long time instead of playing more cognitively complex sports and games in the first place ;-)

True! I myself though dislike sports, but I could easily change your example to solitary activities like swimming or lifting weights, i.e. activities which confer some skill, or make you look better, instead of something as boring (and actually dangerous) as running.

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Thanks for the advice! I'll be more careful about the language. Actually, the point of me doing these was to learn how to write in a more informal voice - to deliver both good content, but also an enjoyable experience even for those not super interested in the science. I think I've strayed from that recently, so I appreciate the nudge.

In exercise intervention research, it used to be all about aerobic exercise, but there was a ton of variation to the exercise intervention. In survey studies, the type of exercise was even more variable. Now research is extending outside of aerobic exercise to other activities like weight training. The results of all of these different types of studies are often conflicting, so I'm pleased that people are starting to build models that try to predict why some exercise studies will work really well and some won't work at all.

You make an especially good point about working in groups! Their framework might also include a social aspect, which is such a core aspect to being a human :-)

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I think I've strayed from that recently, so I appreciate the nudge.

Oh you did fine. There's much harder stuff out there. See this for instance, I just read it: https://steemit.com/science/@lemouth/observation-of-new-phenomena-at-the-lhc-at-cern-flavor-anomalies-beauty-charm-and-penguins#@lemouth/re-alexanderalexis-re-lemouth-re-alexanderalexis-re-lemouth-observation-of-new-phenomena-at-the-lhc-at-cern-flavor-anomalies-beauty-charm-and-penguins-20170629t134202299z

Look at my comment to that post if you wanna have a chuckle maybe!

Now research is extending outside of aerobic exercise to other activities like weight training.

Yeah exercise science is in a lot of ways still in its infancy.

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Just read this post: https://steemit.com/sports/@winstonalden/long-distance-running-versus-injury-how-i-ran-100-miles-in-june Goes to show running isn't ideal for us. I'd say it isn't even good, considering the much healthier alternatives. I don't think it's natural for humans to run long distances.

What cognitively complex sports and games did you have in mind?

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My favorites are climbing, a game some friends and I invented in high school called "volleismash", and old-school neighborhood kids' games, like capture-the-flag.

I'm here to make a public recognition to @ben.zimmerman thanks to his upvote we were able to feed 30 people today: https://steemit.com/story/@interpreter/today-we-feed-30-people-thanks-to-you#comments

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thanks @ben.zimmerman for this fantastic post and for upvoting my last story which has been a great encouragement for me. Following you now. Breathing is also one of the overlooked key factors to wellbeing and mental health. I will be writing about this in the future and my experiences with pranayama and the famous Wim Hof method.