What is good for your brain and your heart?

According to Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, PhD, of the University of California, Los Angeles, exercise actually helps the regeneration of damaged brain circuits. And according to new research from Saint Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, a sustained exercise program may also help slow the progression of Parkinson’s disease. If started early enough in life, exercise might even prevent the disease from developing.

The emerging research on the benefits of exercise for the brain adds to the massive data showing that exercise strengthens the heart, lungs and bones and may lower the risk for stroke, diabetes and heart disease.

Researchers have observed that when lab animals exercise, their nerve cells release chemicals which buffer nerve cells against injury or illness, prompting those cells to multiply and strengthening their connections. Exercise also helps get oxygen and blood to the brain, which translates to more nutrients to the brain. Memory tests given to 1,740 people over 65 during a six year project that ended recently linked moderate exercise to a reduced risk for dementia.

And it’s not just older populations who benefit from exercise. A new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam suggests similar improvements among younger populations as well. “Physical activity may be beneficial to cognition during early and middle periods of the human lifespan and may continue to protect against age-related loss of cognitive function during older adulthood," said Charles H. Hillman, a University of Illinois professor of kinesiology and community health and the lead author of the study.

The study, published in the current edition of the journal Health Psychology, looked at data collected from 241 people aged 15-71 who reported on their exercise behavior and then completed a series of tests to indicate reaction time and response accuracy. While in general older subjects had slower reaction times than younger ones, the more physical-activity the subjects participated in, the better their reaction times. Older participants who were physically active demonstrated improved task performance.