New Research Says Regular Exercise, Healthy Diet in Childhood Can Increase Brain Mass


If you exercised regularly and stuck to a healthy diet in childhood, it is possible that you have bigger brains and lower levels of anxiety now. Researchers at University of California, Riverside, have determined that early-life exercise generally reduced anxious behaviour in adults and also increased adult muscle and brain mass.

The research was conducted on mice. When fed “western” style diets high in fat and sugar, they became fatter and grew into adults that preferred unhealthy foods. The researchers divided the young mice into four groups — those with access to exercise, those without, those fed a standard, healthy diet and those who ate a western diet.

Mice started on their diets immediately after weaning, and continued on them for three weeks, until they reached sexual maturity. After an additional eight weeks of “washout”, during which all mice were housed without wheels and on the healthy diet, the researchers did behavioural analysis, measured aerobic capacity, and levels of several different hormones.

Early-life exercise increased the levels of leptin, a hormone which controls body weight, as well as fat mass in adult mice, regardless of the diet they ate. In other words, getting a jump start on health in the early years of life is extremely important, and interventions may be even more critical in the wake of the pandemic.

“Our findings may be relevant for understanding the potential effects of activity reductions and dietary changes associated with obesity,” said UCR evolutionary physiologist Theodore Garland.

These findings have recently been published in the journal Physiology and Behavior.

“During the COVID-19 lockdowns, particularly in the early months, kids got very little exercise. For many without access to a park or a backyard, school was their only source of physical activity,” said study lead and UCR physiology doctoral student Marcell Cadney, adding, “It is important we find solutions for these kids, possibly including extra attention as they grow into adults.”

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