Does Exercise Really “Matter?”

When it comes to “matters” of the brain, exercise is downright vital!

White matter and gray matter are the two key kinds of tissue in the central nervous system.
While grey matter is associated with information processing and cognition (thinking), white matter acts as a relay and coordinates communication between different brain regions.
The volume and health of the brain’s white matter affects how well we learn … and declines in volume or structural integrity will cause brain dysfunctions that lead to dementia.
Now, a study from Scotland suggests that physical activity may be especially important for preserving the brain’s white matter and keeping it healthy (Gow AJ et al. 2012).
A team at the University of Edinburgh set out to see which of the non-dietary factors known to affect the health and volume of white matter – exercise, mental activity, and social connections – might work best to maintain it.
The Edinburgh group recruited 691 people aged 70 years, who agreed to report their physical, mental, and social activities.
Three years later, the researchers used “computational image processing” to examine the participants’ white matter, looking for lesions and other signs of atrophy.
The results showed that the people who reported the most physical activity also had healthier white matter … that is, their white matter showed less atrophy and fewer lesions.
Surprisingly, the volunteers’ mental and social activities appeared to exert little or no effect on maintenance of healthy white matter.
As lead author Dr. Alan J. Gow commented in The New York Times, the difference may be the advanced age of this particular research cohort.
But as he also told the Times, it still makes sense to pursue mental and social activities:
“There might be associations [between these activities and white-matter health] earlier in the life course. Such activities also have important associations with well-being and quality of life, so we would certainly agree it is important for older adults to continue to pursue them.”
What’s the takeaway?
Don’t rely on any one thing as insurance against premature brain decline.
Pay attention to diet, work your mind, keep up social activities … and move your body!
  • Godin O, Maillard P, Crivello F, Alpérovitch A, Mazoyer B, Tzourio C, Dufouil C. Association of white-matter lesions with brain atrophy markers: the three-city Dijon MRI study. Cerebrovasc Dis. 2009;28(2):177-84. doi: 10.1159/000226117. Epub 2009 Jun 25.
  • Gow AJ, Bastin ME, Muñoz Maniega S, Valdés Hernández MC, Morris Z, Murray C, Royle NA, Starr JM, Deary IJ, Wardlaw JM. Neuroprotective lifestyles and the aging brain: Activity, atrophy, and white matter integrity. Neurology. 2012 Oct 23;79(17):1802-1808.
  • Saczynski JS, Jonsdottir MK, Sigurdsson S, Eiriksdottir G, Jonsson PV, Garcia ME, Kjartansson O, van Buchem MA, Gudnason V, Launer LJ. White matter lesions and cognitive performance: the role of cognitively complex leisure activity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2008 Aug;63(8):848-54.
  • Tan ZS, Harris WS, Beiser AS, Au R, Himali JJ, Debette S, Pikula A, Decarli C, Wolf PA, Vasan RS, Robins SJ, Seshadri S. Red blood cell ω-3 fatty acid levels and markers of accelerated brain aging. Neurology. 2012 Feb 28;78(9):658-64. doi: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e318249f6a9.
  • Vernooij MW, Ikram MA, Vrooman HA, Wielopolski PA, Krestin GP, Hofman A, Niessen WJ, Van der Lugt A, Breteler MM. White matter microstructural integrity and cognitive function in a general elderly population. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009 May;66(5):545-53. doi: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.5.
  • See article in its entirety at