Wanting to stay fit, fab and toned is motivation enough to聽work out聽regularly, but there鈥檚 another聽reason to exercise,聽and it鈥檚 backed up by scientific data. A study conducted by researchers聽from the University of Tsukuba in Japan has shown that there is a direct relationship between聽physical fitness and brain activity and function. That means exercising our聽bodies can help our aging brains.

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It鈥檚 a聽known fact that being physically fit and聽mentally fit usually go聽hand in hand, but this study, led by聽Dr. Hideaki Soya, is significant because it specifically聽sought to find a direct link between brain activation and physical and mental fitness.聽Dr. Soya聽and his team conducted their research with a group of older Japanese men as participants. They found out that the mental performance of the more physically fit men was better than the less-fit men, and that the more physically fit men accomplished this by using聽their brains in the same way as they did in their youth.

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Compared to older folks, younger individuals聽use different parts of the聽brain for different mental functions. Generally, younger adults聽favor one side of the prefrontal cortext for specific聽mental tasks, while older adults tend to use equivalent parts of the left and right sides.聽For example, young people mainly use the left side of their prefrontal cortex for mental functions that involve short-term memory, understanding words and recalling things, people and events that they have encountered in the past. As they get older, they聽use聽both聽the left and right sides for the same mental functions.聽This phenomenon, known as HAROLD, or 鈥渉emispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults,鈥 shows how the brain of older adults compensates for reduced brain capacity and efficiency due to age.

In the study, which was published in聽NeuroImage last October, 60 men aged 64 to 75 were given an exercise test to determine their level of physical fitness. They were then given the popular Stroop test, where they had to identify聽the color of the letters in a word instead of reading the words themselves. Their reaction time was measured to assess聽their brain function while the activity of their prefrontal cortex was also monitored using a neuroimaging technique that provided the researchers with a measure of the participants鈥 brain activity.

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Analysis of the results showed聽that the men used the left and right sides of their prefrontal cortex during the mental test, confirming the HAROLD phenomenon. Other studies have shown that younger adults used their left side more when performing this聽mental task.聽The results also revealed that the men who favored the left side of their prefrontal cortex had faster reaction times, and that the physically-fitter men also had faster reaction times.

Based on this research, it would seem that older folks with higher aerobic fitness tend to use the left side of their brain聽like they did when they were younger, at least when it comes to聽the Stroop test. According to Dr. Soya,聽a possible explanation is that the white matter in the聽part of the brain that links the left and right sides聽deteriorates聽as people聽age, but more fit聽individuals are able to maintain this white matter better than individuals who are less physically fit, therefore allowing the fitter individuals to use their brain the same way they did in their youth. This theory, however, needs to be studied further, says Dr. Hoya.

Though the research was conducted among men, it鈥檚 not exactly聽farfetched to think that the same thing applies聽to women. So unless further research says otherwise, keep trying to squeeze those workouts聽into your聽schedule!

Does you think this new study encourages people to exercise more? Share your thoughts in the comments!

(Photos via Getty)