Does snowboarding make you smarter?

OK, so we are using the license of a marketing copywriter when we say that snowboarding makes you smarter. But wouldn’t that be great if it did?

While we can’t really say that snowboarding does that, there is some scientific evidence that exercise is good not only for the body, but for the brain as well.

The Los Angeles Times has a review of the benefits of exercise in “Brainpower: Think upkeep” (October 16, 2006). Greg Miller writes that the brain’s abilities start to decline in a person’s 30s, due to changes in brain chemistry and connections. But according to Molly Wagster, program director for neuropsychology of aging research at the National Institute on Aging, exercise is one of several factors that can affect cognition. Other factors include mental activity, social engagement and cardiovascular health.

Reversing the decline of aging

In “How to Keep Your Brain Fit: Aerobics,” The Wall Street Journal (November 16, 2006) reported on new developments in the study of aging. “For the first time, scientists have found something that not only halts the brain shrinkage that starts in a person’s 40s, especially in regions responsible for memory and higher cognition, but actually reverses it: aerobic exercise.”

So how much aerobic exercise is required? “As little as three hours a week of brisk walking.”

So how does exercise help the brain? We’re far from being scientists, but it seems that the amount of gray matter increases, and the quality of the connections between neurons (the gray matter) improves. While the cliche has it that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you may be able to get the brain to actually grow new neurons, something dubbed neurogenesis.

All this leaves to some very good results: physical activity can not only stem the decline of alertness, memory, and reasoning functions; it can improve them.

MRIs Show Bigger Brains: University of Illinois

The press office of the University of Illinois announces some recent findings, which serve as the basis of the LA Times and Wall Street Journal articles. Professor Arthur F. Kramer, a neuroscientist, headed a team that did the study.

Here’s an excerpt of the release of November 20, 2006, titled “Exercise shown to reverse brain deterioration brought on by aging.”

“Sedentary volunteers 60 through 79 years old participated in a six-month exercise program that met three times each week. Half of the volunteers did aerobic exercises such as walking. The other half did non-aerobic stretching and toning exercises.

Co-author Edward McAuley, a professor of kinesiology at Illinois, and his collaborators monitored the fitness of all participants and increased the intensity of the aerobic and non-aerobic workouts as the study progressed.

The researchers compared high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging brain scans before and at the end of the exercise program.

By the end of the six-month program, the participants in the aerobic exercise group showed increases in brain volume compared with participants who did toning and stretching exercises. The prefrontal and temporal cortices — areas that show considerable age-related deterioration — incurred the greatest gains from aerobic exercise.”

Can snowboarding be aerobic? Obviously big-mountain riding is going to provide a greater opportunity than quick trips down 300 foot vertical hills in the Midwest. But experiment. Go faster (while staying in control!) and find ways to make the most use of the terrain. And for many beginners, simply trying to stand up and macientiintain control takes a lot of energy.

Dr. Kramer may not be a brain surgeon, but he’s smart enough for us. And if he says that exercise is good for your brain, all we can say is … Go out and ride.

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