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Regular exercise releases brain chemicals key for memory, concentration, and mental sharpness, from the May 2013 Harvard Men's Health Watch

Looking to stop "brain fog" or frequent bouts of forgetfulness? Exercise turns out to be an excellent way to protect and enhance brain health, according to the May 2013 issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch.

"There's a lot you can do to prevent cognitive decline, or slow it down, or recover memory function that you might feel you have lost," says Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

One key strategy is regular, moderately intense exercise. It helps maintain healthy blood pressure and weight, improves energy, lifts mood, lowers stress and anxiety, and keeps the heart healthy, all of which contribute to brain health. But exercise also stimulates brain regions that are involved in memory function to release a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF rewires memory circuits so they work better. "When you exercise and move around, you are using more brain cells," says Dr. Ratey, who is also the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008). "Using more brain cells turns on genes to make more BDNF."

BDNF isn't available in a pill. Only the brain can make it, and only with regular exercise. That means 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, ideally five days a week. The threshold for brain benefit seems to be raising your heart rate to 70% of maximum. For men, the maximum heart rate is roughly 220 minus age.

Exercising once or twice a week is just not going to do it. "It's probably good for your body," Dr. Ratey says, "but it won't get you there in terms of the cognitive benefits. You also have to continue to do it to continue accruing the benefits."

Read the full-length article: "Get your heart pumping in the fight against forgetfulness"

Also in this issue of the Harvard Men's Health Watch

  • Reducing stress works better than supplements for heart disease
  • On call: Generic Lipitor: Fight or switch?
  • On call: Heart disease and high altitudes: Safe to travel?
  • Get your heart pumping in the fight against forgetfulness
  • Weak kidneys? Pay attention but don't worry excessively
  • Free preventive services for men
  • Osteoporosis update for men
  • In the journals: Caffeine may worsen urinary leakage
  • In the journals: Irregular heart rhythm linked to mental decline
  • In the journals: Have osteoarthritis? Careful with narcotic painkillers
  • In the journals: Mediterranean diet reduces risk of heart attacks

More Harvard Health News »

About Harvard Health Publications

Harvard Health Publications publishes four monthly newsletters--Harvard Health Letter, Harvard Women's Health Watch, Harvard Men's Health Watch, and Harvard Heart Letter--as well as more than 50 special health reports and books drawing on the expertise of the 8,000 faculty physicians at Harvard Medical School and its world-famous affiliated hospitals.