A number of studies have shown that exercise can remodel the brain by prompting the creation of new brain cells and inducing hormonal changes. It appears that inactivity can also remodel the brain. The study, which was conducted in rats, found that being sedentary alters the shape of specific neurons in ways that affect not just the brain but the heart as well.
The findings may help to explain, in part, why a sedentary lifestyle promotes an unhealthy lifestyle. Until about 20 years ago, most scientists believed that the brain’s neurology was fixed by adulthood and that you couldn’t alter the shape or produce new brain cells.
But in recent years, neurology studies have established that the brain retains plasticity, or the capacity to change, throughout our lifetime. Exercise appears to be particularly proficient at remodeling the brain.
Active Rats Vs. Lazy Rats
A study recently published in The Journal of Comparative Neurology, scientists at Wayne State University School of Medicine gathered a dozen rats. They put half of them on running wheels and let the animals run at will. Rats enjoy running, on average the rats were accomplishing three miles a day. The other rats were put in cages without wheels and forced to be sedentary.
A well-regulated sympathetic nervous system directs blood vessels to vasodialate or vasoconstrict as needed so you can react in a fight or flight situation. But an overly responsive sympathetic nervous system is unhealthy. There should be a good balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic sections of your autonomic nervous system. Current science states that “over activity of the sympathetic nervous system contributes to increased risk of cardiovascular disease,” by stimulating blood vessels to constrict in a deregulated fashion leading to high blood pressure.
What Was Discovered?
When the scientists looked inside the brains of their rats after the animals had been active or sedentary for about 12 weeks, they found noticeable differences between the two groups in the neurons of the brain.
Performing a CT of the brain the study stated that the neurons in the brains of the running rats were functioning and shaped the same a prior to the study. The neurons in the brains of the sedentary rats had sprouted far more new tentacle-like arms known as branches. Branches connect healthy neurons into the nervous system. But these neurons now had more branches than normal neurons would have, making them more sensitive to stimuli. This means these neurons had changed in ways that made them likely to over stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, potentially increasing blood pressure and contributing to the development of heart disease.
Get Out and Get Moving
Of course, rats are not people, and this is a small, short-term study. But already one takeaway is that not moving has wide-ranging physiological effects. In other words, get out and get moving. Even more if you are stuck in a sedentary job which places you behind a computer for 8 hours a day make sure you get up and move every hour. Do 10 deep knee bends, 10 overhead reaches, and 10 desk pushups to keep your brain and body active as well as keep musculoskeletal stress at bay.
Do you work at a job that requires sitting for hours? What do you do to stay active during the week? Let us know in the comments below!