couple exercising together

exercise makes a difference

Can physical exercise - movement --counteract a feeling or a pattern of stagnancy in a couple's communication process?

New research bolsters an insight that even a decade ago would have been considered dubious. This insight, that has gained steady acceptance and risen from the ranks of the scandalously radical into the scientific mainstream, holds that the adult brain can and does create new brain cells and new connecting cells within established neural networks! This is now an accepted fact. The brain's ability to create new cells - called neurogenesis - furthermore, is proven to be enhanced by exercise.

Dr. Jack Kessler heads up a team of researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. His team found that bone-morphogenetic protein, BMP for short, found throughout the tissues of the body and brain interferes with the process of neurogenesis. BMP slows brain growth, reduces possibilities for new connections between established neural networks; in short, it causes the human brain to age, to become less resilient. Exercise, however, stimulates the growth of a cleverly named brain protein, Noggin, that neutralizes BMP. Noggin production increases with exercise; this is one of the ways in which exercise safeguards brain vitality. In experiments with mice - some of whom were given access to running wheels and then compared to other deprived of the opportunity to exercise - researchers found that the exercising mice had 50% less BMP related brain activity -- deterioration -- than the non-exercising mice 

In a study conducted at the University of Illinois, youngsters between the ages of 9 and 10 were tested for their level of physical fitness and then grouped according to most-fit, least-fit and a median group. The median group was excluded from the rest of the study so that the variable of high vs. low fitness could be contrasted most starkly. The high- and low-fit kids were given cognitive tasks requiring them to differentiate between two kinds of information -- information that was either a distraction from, or relevant to, the solution of the cognitive tasks that were presented. The high-fit children scored significantly higher than their low-fit counterparts. Subsequent MRI scans showed that the fitter children had significantly larger basal ganglia, the part of the brain that maintains attention and coordinates executive control, attention.

brain anatomy

The ability to compare and contrast current to previous experience and reflect upon these factors, complex memory, is associated with the hippocampus. A secondary study involving the same group of 9 and 10 year olds confirmed that the fitter children also had larger hippocampi.

Summary: Current trends in research, of which the above studies are a small sample, indicate that physical exercise protects against debilitation of brain's capacity to generate new brain cells and new connections between existing neural networks. And that learning, and the key areas of the brain that are centrally engaged in learning, such as executive control, attention, complex memory grow larger as a result of exercise.

Interesting to note: Other experiments have found that depression and bipolar illness are associated with shrinking of the hippocampi. Exercise as noted above is associated with the opposite trend -- reduction of depressive symptoms and tendencies; this trend is noted and discussed at length in Spark: the Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, written by John Ratey, MD.

Suggestion #1: If possible, exercise with your partner.

asian woman exercising


Suggestion #2: If and when not possible, make sure you exercise yourself.

Suggestion #3: Think of exercise, movement, as a metaphor, for moving around and seeing the elements of your life situation from different (new) perspectives. If you are a person who catastrophizes, think about how to get around and away from that style. Allow yourself to make the necessary moves.

Key point: Exercise, physical and/or communication, is a process. A process that encourages a mindset. The mindset is one of becoming active and engaged in activities that benefit you. Much of what makes couples therapy, and most other forms of therapy, successful rests on its ability to help people adopt an active stance in responding to whatever problems they face in their situation. Physical exercise can be a wonderful boon to the health of the body; also, a wonderful metaphor for actually taking control of your life situation and finding positive direction.

I am pleased to have you join me here with questions, comments and suggestions. I'm interested to know how this piece strikes you, whether it helps you get moving in whatever direction you, or you and your partner, need to go. Feel free to write to me and let me know. Remember, love and good feelings are plentiful yet elusive; I'll be around to help you locate and develop them in the Middle Ground.

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