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Boost your brain power with exercise

Can exercise make you smarter? Why does it take so long after starting an exercise program to see results? Are there pitfalls to partner workouts? Smart Fitness answers your queries.
Woman Swimming
What's good for our hearts and waistlines also appears to be good for our minds.Superstock / Ingram Publishing

Can exercise make you smarter? Why does it take so long after starting an exercise program to see results? Are there pitfalls to partner workouts? Smart Fitness answers your queries.

Have an exercise question? To e-mail us, click here. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: What is the relationship between physical and mental fitness? Does exercise enhance our brain power?

A: Mounting scientific evidence on the effects of exercise suggests that what's good for our hearts and waistlines also is good for our minds.

"Exercise in many ways optimizes your brain to learn," says Dr. John Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston who's at work on a book about exercise and the brain.

Exercise improves circulation throughout the body, including the brain, Ratey explains. Exercise also boosts metabolism, decreases stress and improves mood and attention, all of which help the brain perform better, he says.

"The brain cells actually become more resilient and more pliable and are more ready to link up," he says. It's this linking up that allows us to retain new information.

Much of the research on the specific effects of exercise on neurons has been done in the lab. But studies in people also are backing physical activity as a way to keep the brain healthy and our minds sharp.

For instance, a study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that older people who exercised at least three times a week were about a third less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia than people who exercised less. Even walking helped.

It's well known that exercise helps prevent high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and stroke, all of which can contribute to dementia.

Research also has found that workers who exercise during the workday feel more productive and seem to handle job stress better than their sedentary colleagues.

Yet while studies suggest that exercise enhances cognitive skills such as reasoning and concentration, it's not clear that a lunchtime trip to the gym will make you immediately and dramatically smarter, says Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Center on Aging and author of "The Longevity Bible: 8 Essential Strategies for Keeping Your Mind Sharp and Your Body Young.”

It's also not known how much physical activity confers the optimal brain benefits, but researchers do know that even brisk walking a few times a week helps.

"You do not have to become a triathlete," says Small.

Q: Why is it that when you start an exercise program, it could take up to three months to start seeing weight-loss results?

A: It's not that exercise isn't helping you to lose any weight in those first weeks. But you shouldn't expect to see dramatic results immediately.

Experts say a healthy weight loss is no more than a pound or two a week — and that's ambitious for many of us. To lose a pound of fat, you need to create a deficit of 3,500 calories through exercise and/or diet, which isn't always easy.

So if you've lost only a few pounds since starting your exercise program, you may not notice any difference in how your clothes fit. If you've been weight-training intensely, it's also possible that you've gained a pound or two of muscle.

With time, and more weight loss, you'll see the difference.

Q: I exercise regularly with my partner, Bruno, and I was just curious if it helps working out together or maybe if we should separate since we are crazy about each other?

A: Partner workouts generally are touted as a good thing. Having a workout buddy helps with motivation and adherence to an exercise program, and it can boost the fun factor, too.

But it sounds like you're more focused on the fun — or the flirting — than the actual fitness.

If you're having trouble keeping your mind — and certainly your hands — off Bruno while you work out, try going solo to the gym.

Smart Fitness appears every other Tuesday.