I was in graduate school at USC when President George H. W. Bush designated the 1990s as the “Decade of the Brain”. The hope was to ultimately make life-changing discoveries through ongoing brain research. Through the physical therapy lens, I witnessed a growing body of studies connecting cognitive thought and physical ability. The mind became an essential component in healing the body. Since the Decade of the Brain, the intertwined mind-body connection has changed the way we train athletes, manage chronic disease, and recover from injury.
We’ve long known the positive effects exercise can have on brain functions such as mood, mental acuity, and sleep patterns. But new research by a colleague of mine from the University of Southern California now suggests an even greater benefit—that physical activity can change the architecture of our brain. Experiments conducted on mice with Parkinson’s related conditions demonstrated an improved ability for movement though new brain structure. The changes came from neuroplasticity—the formation of new pathways between nerve cells.
This type of cellular change happens in my Parkinson’s patients and in every one of us who exercises. Continually pushing the challenge and intensity of exercise triggers the branching of neurons in deep brain regions that control movement. To maximize this connection, choose exercise that is both demanding and requires mental attention. You may also adapt your current activities by adding more conscious thought or intensity.
Physical therapy for brain conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease once primarily concentrated on managing the symptoms and decline of function, but not the cause. However, recent studies continue to show us how essential exercise can be for all our organs, including the grey matter upstairs. The reach of this information should not be limited solely to therapy settings. By implementing an exercise program that challenges us day-to-day, we can each experience the benefits of both greater physical health and a more responsive brain.