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One More Reason Aerobic Exercise Is So Good for Your Brain

Physical activity stabilizes cerebral choline, which inhibits neurodegeneration.

Source: LANBO/Shutterstock

A decade ago, I first wrote about the power of aerobic exercise to improve neuronal plasticity and produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)—which stimulates neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons)—in The Athlete's Way (St. Martin's Press). At the time, these ideas were radical concepts based on cutting-edge discoveries. Today, just about everybody knows that exercise is good for your brain. And discussion of BDNF being "Miracle-Gro" for the brain and exercise-induced neuroplasticity are commonplace. We've made amazing progress!

However, until very recently, scientists have struggled to pin down specific molecular mechanisms underlying the neuroprotective power of exercise to improve cognitive function and reduce dementia. But there is good news. This week, a new study reports that cerebral choline levels may be a singular marker that explains multi-dimensional reasons that aerobic exercise is so good for the human brain. These findings were published online July 18 in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

This study was a multidisciplinary effort conducted by the Gerontology Department of the Institute of General Medicine (headed by Johannes Pantel) and the Department of Sports Medicine (led by Winfried Banzer) at Goethe University.

During this study, the German researchers found that 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise (64.9% of VO2 Max) three times a week, stabilized cerebral choline concentrations in a training group, whereas choline levels increased in the control group that didn't exercise. As we age, escalating levels of choline are linked to cognitive impairment and loss of brain function. Aerobic exercise appears to stop choline levels from skyrocketing and boosts brain power by increasing markers of neuronal energy reserve.

The researchers conclude: "As choline is a marker of neurodegeneration, this finding suggests a neuroprotective effect of aerobic exercise. Overall, our findings indicate that cerebral choline might constitute a valid marker for an effect of aerobic exercise on the brain in healthy aging.”

This research is part of the ongoing SMART study (Sport and Metabolism in Older Persons, an MRT Study) which includes a triad of movement-related parameters, cardiopulmonary fitness, and cognitive performance. As would be expected, over the 12-week period of this study, participants' physical fitness improved in tandem with neuroprotective brain benefits.

Aerobic exercise continues to outshine any other lifestyle choice as the single best way to maintain a healthy brain in a healthy body. Hopefully, the latest discovery that moderate-intensity physical activity a few times a week can stabilize cerebral choline levels and boosts neuronal energy reserves will be a source of motivation that inspires you to stay physically active across your lifespan.


S Matura, J Fleckenstein, R Deichmann, T Engeroff, E Füzéki, E Hattingen, R Hellweg, B Lienerth, U Pilatus, S Schwarz, V A Tesky, L Vogt, W Banzer, J Pantel. Effects of aerobic exercise on brain metabolism and grey matter volume in older adults: results of the randomised controlled SMART trial. Translational Psychiatry, 2017; 7 (7): e1172 DOI: 10.1038/tp.2017.135