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Why exercise is as good for your brain as it is for your body

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Why exercise is as good for your brain as it is for your body

A satisfying night’s sleep has long been branded as the cure to all ills, particularly when clearing damaging toxins from the brain.

Neuroscientists have long believed that deep sleep helps the clearance of problematic debris from the brain, flushing away many of the proteins and metabolites thought to be involved in the development of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. 

This is hardly reassuring for the insomniacs amongst us. However definitive proof has always been hard to come by, and a new study in the journal Nature Neuroscience has poured cold water on the theory. While sleep is still vital for many aspects of health, Bill Wisden, a professor at the UK Dementia Research Institute who was involved in leading the study, says that being active may actually play a far bigger role in toxin clearance. 

“We have shown that brain clearance is highly efficient during the waking state,” he says. “In general, being awake, active, and exercising may more efficiently clean the brain of toxins.”

This is undoubtedly good news for anyone who struggles to get a solid seven hours a night. After all, a brisk half-hour walk is something most of us can manage even after a night of tossing and turning.

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Wisden’s suggestion fits in with a growing number of research breakthroughs in recent years that indicate the sheer importance of exercise for all aspects of the brain. 

Toxin clearance

Exercise’s role in removing waste from the brain is currently an area of active investigation in research labs across the globe. The working theory relates to certain shape-shifting brain cells known as microglial cells which can take on different personas depending on your state of health.

In some psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and even Long Covid, the disease process causes microglia to take on a visibly spiky form, generating inflammation and interfering with the brain’s natural workings.

However, researchers suspect that exercise may actively induce microglia to take on a healthier anti-inflammatory guise. This means they would act as helpful scavengers, clearing detritus and ensuring that the synaptic connections between neurons are clean and functioning properly.

“Microglia are there to survey everything,” says Dr Rebecca MacPherson, associate professor at Brock University in Canada where she runs a lab studying how exercise benefits the brain. “We’re exploring this idea that exercise activates them in a way that enhances the way they clear the products of metabolism.”

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The brain fertiliser

Research has repeatedly shown that being physically active reduces the risk of all forms of dementia by 28%, and Alzheimer’s disease in particular by 45%.

Over the years scientists have conducted various experiments in which participants have been randomised into two different groups, with one group following an exercise program and the other remaining sedentary. Almost all of them have reported that the exercise program group performed better on cognitive tests, with the same trend found in healthy participants, stroke survivors, and even Alzheimer’s patients.

Much of this is thought to be down to a molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. This molecule has gained a reputation among neuroscientists as ‘the brain fertiliser’ for its remarkable ability to stimulate the growth of new neurons and strengthen the connections between them.

“Muscle contractions increase BDNF while your platelets in the blood actually store a lot of BDNF,” says MacPherson. “So with increased blood flow due to exercise, your platelets can release more of it into the circulation.”

Through studies carried out in cells and animals, MacPherson’s lab has even shown that BDNF prevents the accumulation of tiny beta-amyloid protein fragments in the brain by altering the activity of different enzymes, which could explain why exercise helps to diminish the risk of Alzheimer’s.

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But BDNF is not the only beneficial molecule released when you exercise. Last year, a study in the journal Neuron showed that exercise causes the production of a hormone called irisin which is capable of clearing amyloid plaques.

Christiane Wrann, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who was involved in the study, has been so fascinated by irisin that she is now looking to develop an artificial form of it as a therapeutic for various neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“It’s a small hormone which works on neuroinflammation and plaque clearance which makes it very relevant for Alzheimer’s disease,” she says. “I think there’s three or four properties of irisin that make it a really promising drug target.”

How much exercise and which intensity is best?

MacPherson gives a wry smile when this question is broached. “Everyone wants to know exactly what they need to do, and that’s a difficult one to answer,” she says.

The NHS guidelines advise you to do some sort of aerobic exercise, or physical activity which raises your heart rate, for at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week.

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MacPherson says that BDNF production correlates with exercise intensity, so your body will produce more when doing higher-intensity forms of activity such as interval training. However, she says it is important for people to do what they feel capable of, and any form of exercise, no matter how mild, will still hold some benefit for the body and the brain.

“I think as an individual, you need to think, how much time do I have and what do I enjoy?” she says. “Even if you’re only able to do moderate intensity exercise, you still get an increase in BDNF, and there’s also the increased blood flow which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the brain which will also enhance brain cell growth.”

The scientific reason exercise boosts your mood 

Exercise has also been known to have the capacity to provide relief to people struggling with symptoms of depression, such as low mood or anhedonia, which refers to a loss of pleasure in previously rewarding activities.

At University College London, cognitive neuroscientist Professor Jonathan Roiser is currently leading a Wellcome-funded clinical trial to try and understand more about why exercise is so beneficial for mental health.

“I’ve long been interested in the information processing aspects which go wrong in depression and how they contribute to symptoms,” he says. “There are other symptoms that tend to cluster together with anhedonia such as fatigue and difficulty with decision-making, and there are some hints that exercise is specifically targeting these kinds of symptoms.”

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Roiser’s trial will examine the greater benefits of aerobic exercise, where participants get out of breath and break sweat, compared to mild stretching and relaxation, in people with depression.

The aim is to get further proof for some of the major theories behind how exercise benefits mental health, such as stimulating the production of dopamine, which is involved in motivation, as well as dampening down inflammation.

“A lot of depressed people experience what we call chronic inflammation which prevents dopamine neurons from firing and perhaps contributes to their symptoms,” he says. “So the anti-inflammatory effects of exercise are a core part of how we think it’s working.”

As we discover more and more about how exercise protects the body, it could even lead to a new class of drugs, known as exercise mimetics which could provide some of the benefits of physical activity to the disabled and frail.

But for the rest of us, researchers have one simple message – whether it’s the gym or playing sports, making time to stay active will keep your mind healthier for longer.

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“Whether it’s improving mood or cognitive function, exercise is one of the best things you can do for your brain,” says Wrann.

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Think You're a Strong Hiker? Test Your Trail Strength with These 4 Exercises

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Think You're a Strong Hiker? Test Your Trail Strength with These 4 Exercises

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Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members!
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Strength tests can be extremely useful for hikers who are training for a big objective, or simply want to learn more about their own fitness levels. Last year, we published four assessments to test your trail readiness. There are plenty of other physical tests you can do to see how strong your hiking muscles are. Below are four exercises you can perform to monitor your overall hiking fitness and highlight major areas that feel powerful or could use more training. (Feeling really strong? Combine both tests for a complete full-body assessment.)

How To Perform This Strength Test

Objective measures are useful, but subjective results reveal more about your fitness. For example, you might be able to complete 20 single-leg sit-to-stands per leg on the initial assessment, which is a great score. But if the exercise left you tired and sore for days, that’s less ideal. 

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Perform the strength test honestly and stop once you can no longer execute a full range of motion with good form. If you can’t achieve the baseline targets on the first go-around, keep strength training and try again in four to six weeks.

It’s helpful to re-test regularly to understand your progress. Upon reassessments, think back to your previous attempt. Did the effort required to complete any particular assessment feel easier? Did you recover quickly? Was there any lingering soreness? Were your muscles burning at any point? These subjective results are a great measure of progress that won’t necessarily appear in objective findings.

To interpret your results, compare the scores for your right and left legs. If they are equal or within a few reps, that’s good. If there is a difference of more than five reps per side, add an extra set of the suggested exercises for the weaker side. Your training is going well when the assessments all meet the baseline. 

Single-Leg Sit-To-Stand

One of the more challenging assessments, the single-leg sit-to-stand, primarily targets the quads, hamstrings, adductors, glutes, core, and ankle mobility. What makes this assessment hard is the control required to lower down to the bench or chair. 

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Begin this assessment standing with your back to a stable chair or bench. With control, you’ll lift one leg and hold it in front of you while lowering to sit on the bench or chair with the opposite leg. Return to standing using one leg and repeat until you can no longer perform the motion with controlled form. End the assessment if you start using your arms for momentum or if you start using a rocking motion to come up from the seated position.

For this assessment, the goal is 25 controlled reps per leg. If you fall short, add some single-leg step-downs and pistol variations into your regular training routine.

Single Leg Dorsiflexion

This exercise tests the endurance of the big shin muscle, the anterior tibialis. This muscle helps lift the foot when walking and lowers the foot back to the ground after the heel makes contact. Basically, it prevents you from tripping. Strong shin muscles can also ward off issues like shin splints and help make ascents and descents easier.

Stand near a countertop, wall, or doorway if you need to hold onto something for balance. While keeping your heel on the floor, raise the rest of your foot as high as possible—the motion is like lifting your foot off a gas pedal. Avoid shifting your hips backward as you raise your foot. With control, lower your foot back down to the floor. 

The goal is 40 repetitions for each leg. If you come up short, add single-leg dorsiflexion from a 4- to 6-inch step to your weekly workouts, or try the wall lean dorsiflexion variation. Both will provide a greater range of motion and are excellent for building strength.

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(Photo: Patricio Nahuelhual via Getty Images)

Side Plank

The side plank is an excellent exercise for building stability and core strength. Specifically, it targets the obliques, abs, and other stabilizing muscles required for carrying a fully loaded backpack.

To perform a side plank, lie on your side with your feet stacked and your elbow underneath your shoulder. Raise your hips off the floor, aiming to keep your trunk straight and still from your head to your feet. Don’t let your hips sag toward the floor; stay tight. Once you can no longer maintain position, lower your hips back to the floor and repeat the assessment on the opposite side.

Your goal is to hold the plank for 90 seconds per side. If your time isn’t quite there, don’t worry. Train any side plank variation or weighted marches (such as suitcase marches or farmer carries) to get stronger. Pallof isometric holds or Pallof presses are also great additions to any training program.

Ankle Dorsiflexion

This test assesses your ankle’s range of motion, which, if limited, can increase the risk of ankle sprains and injury. Place a tape measure perpendicular to a wall, measuring away from it. Get down on one knee in front of the wall with your leading foot 2 to 3 inches from the wall. Keeping your hips straight, glide your front knee forward to touch the wall, and keep the heel of that foot down. If you can’t touch the wall with your knee while keeping your heel down, move closer to the wall and retest. If you can touch the wall, move your foot back and retest. Record your score (the furthest distance you can place your foot from the wall while keeping your heel down) for each ankle and use the chart below to find your degree of dorsiflexion.

Normal ankle dorsiflexion is 40 degrees, or about 4.5 inches from the wall. If you fall below 34 degrees of dorsiflexion, roughly 4 inches from the wall, you have a fivefold increased risk for ankle sprains. In addition, if there is an asymmetry of more than 5 degrees per side, your risk of injury increases.

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Inches from Wall

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Degree of Dorsiflexion

5

45 degrees

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4.5

41 degrees

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4

36 degrees

3.5

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31 degrees

3

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27 degrees

2.5

22 degrees

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2

18 degrees

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1.5

13 degrees

1

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9 degrees

If your measurement falls below 40 degrees, or you have an asymmetry greater than 5 degrees, add ankle mobility work to your workout warm-ups. There are three options to improve dorsiflexion: Start with the ankle rocker, progress to a dumbbell, and finally, use a band to mobilize the joint. If your retest score does not improve after four to six weeks of ankle rocker exercise, move on to the dumbbell or band option. Once your mobility improves, reduce the frequency to once per week.

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Jay Cutler Shares His 'Number One' Exercise for Hamstrings – Muscle & Fitness

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Jay Cutler Shares His 'Number One' Exercise for Hamstrings – Muscle & Fitness

Four-time Mr Olympia champ and International Sports Hall of Fame inductee, Jay Cutler, is a trailblazer who has helped to elevate the bodybuilding industry and at 50-years-young is now training a new generation of rock-solid athletes through his teachings at fitness conventions and on social media where he has millions of followers.

In an Instagram post on June 8, 2024, Cutler shared his “Number One” exercise for hamstrings.

Jay Cutler’s Go-To Exercise for Hamstrings

“This has always been my number one exercise,” shares Cutler. “In fact, when I lived in Massachusetts, okay, I lived in Worcester, and I end up choosing to go to a gym in Framingham, Mass, which is probably 25 minutes away when I had [a gym] like right next door to my house, just to use a seated leg curl, which at the time it was a Flex, it was called a Ham Tractor.”

Cutler may be known for his “Quad Stomp” on stage, but his success in bodybuilding hails from an all-encompassing journey to growing his legs. The hamstrings are comprised of the biceps femoris long head (bi-articular) and short head (mono-articular), semitendinosus (bi-articular) and the semimembranosus (bi-articular), and they assist with the movement of the hips and knees. Since the seated leg curl places stress on both our knees and hips, it makes this a great movement for targeting those muscles.

Studies have also shown that the seated leg curl provides greater hypertrophy than prone (front-lying) curls, making them excellent for building mass. “It’s always, always, always, if you ever follow my videos, its always the first movement I do,” explains Cutler. “Why? It just seems to target my hamstrings. I get a crazy pump after doing this one movement.”

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The bodybuilding icon lays out his approach, explaining that he does three working sets and notes that he throws in one or two feeler sets beforehand, to get a gauge on the type of weight that he wants to use in the working sets. “I’m gonna focus on doing ten or twelve reps,” he says of each set. In the video, Cutlet starts with around 130 pounds in his first feeler set and shares why he sticks in the ten-to-twelve rep range. “So, whether it’s a warmup or a working set, I always still focus on about the same reps,” he explains. “The high reps; s**t, It doesn’t help anything. Everyone thinks you get cut up if you do more high reps. Misconception.”

To follow more of Jay Cutler’s bodybuilding tips follow him on Instagram!

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Exercise considered safe for people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in new guidelines

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Exercise considered safe for people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy in new guidelines
image: @wombatzaa | iStock

Recent revisions to guidelines for people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) aim to clear up confusion about exercise recommendations

HCM is an inherited heart condition that causes the heart muscle to thicken, leading to breathlessness and chest pain. Affecting approximately 1 in 500 people, many cases of HCM remain undiagnosed.

Despite previous concerns, new guidelines show the importance of exercise for people with HCM.

Updates guidelines for people with HCM

The updated guidelines, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, stress that mild to moderate recreational exercise benefits those with HCM.

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Experts, including Dr. Steve Ommen, medical director of the Mayo Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy Clinic, advocate for at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, aligning with general physical activity recommendations.

The shift in the new guidelines is the view on vigorous exercise. The update suggests that, with proper monitoring and annual evaluations, people with HCM can safely engage in vigorous activities. This represents a shift from older guidelines that limited HCM patients to low-intensity sports due to fears of sudden cardiac death.

Safely exercising with HCM

Recent studies support this change. Research shows that vigorous exercise does not significantly increase the risk of death for people with HCM compared to moderate or no exercise. One study involving 1,660 people with HCM found no heightened risk of death from vigorous exercise. Another study, focusing on elite athletes with genetic heart diseases, showed that with thorough evaluations, these athletes could safely return to their sports.

The guidelines now recognise that HCM affects individuals differently, for most people with HCM, universal bans on vigorous physical activity or competitive sports are no longer recommended. Instead, the emphasis is on individualised assessments and shared decision-making between patients and doctors.

Athletes with HCM are advised to undergo annual evaluations and consultations with HCM specialists to determine safe physical activity levels. Factors like age, family history, heart scans, and exercise stress test results help doctors assess the risks and provide tailored exercise recommendations.

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