Skip to content

 A new study found differences in gut microbes between active women (they exercised at least the recommended amount) and those that are sedentary. When the gut bacteria were analyzed with modern tests (genetic sequencing) the active women had more of the health promoting beneficial bacteria such as Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Roseburia hominis, and Akkermansia muciniphila than the sedentary women. The sedentary women also had some bacterial species not seen in the active women. The researchers said that exercise "modifies the composition of gut microbiota" (the gut microbes) in a way beneficial for health.

And what is the recommended minimal amount of exercise? The World Health Organization recommends at least 3 days of exercise per week for 30 minutes at a moderate intensity. Note that exercise can mean doing exercises, but it can also include walking briskly, intense housework (scrubbing, vacuuming with lots of bending, etc.), gardening (digging, raking, etc), or shoveling snow, etc. In this study the group of active women had at least 3 hours of physical exercise per week. Note that a sedentary lifestyle is associated with a high incidence of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, while physical exercise or activity has metabolic and immune health benefits (prevents disease).

But...reading the full study, the research also showed that the active group ate more fruits and vegetables - which we know has an effect on the gut microbiome and feeds beneficial bacteria. Although the diets of the 2 groups of women were similar in total carbohydrates, protein and fat content eaten, the active women ate more fruits, vegetables, and fiber, and the sedentary group ate more processed meat. So it looks like both exercise and a good amount of fruits and vegetables may be important for nurturing beneficial bacteria. By the way, the 3 species of beneficial bacteria mentioned currently are not found in any probiotic supplements on the market. (Earlier posts on the beneficial F. prausnitzii and Akkermansia muciniphila). From PLoS ONE:

Differences in gut microbiota profile between women with active lifestyle and sedentary women

Physical exercise is a tool to prevent and treat some of the chronic diseases affecting the world’s population. A mechanism through which exercise could exert beneficial effects in the body is by provoking alterations to the gut microbiota, an environmental factor that in recent years has been associated with numerous chronic diseases. Here we show that physical exercise performed by women to at least the degree recommended by the World Health Organization can modify the composition of gut microbiota. Using high-throughput sequencing of the 16s rRNA gene, eleven genera were found to be significantly different between active and sedentary women. Quantitative PCR analysis revealed higher abundance of health-promoting bacterial species in active women, including Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Roseburia hominis and Akkermansia muciniphila. Moreover, body fat percentage, muscular mass and physical activity significantly correlated with several bacterial populations. In summary, we provide the first demonstration of interdependence between some bacterial genera and sedentary behavior parameters, and show that not only does the dose and type of exercise influence the composition of gut microbiota, but also the breaking of sedentary behavior.

Sedentary lifestyle is associated with a high incidence of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. Physical exercise is a powerful preventative and treatment intervention that is known to be effective in generating metabolic and immune health benefits. The gut microbiota is essential for processing dietary components and has a major role in shaping the immune system.... Dysbiosis or imbalance in gut microbiota has been associated with many diseases, among which are ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, colon cancer, metabolic syndrome, type I and type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergy, asthma, eczema and autism.....Several studies in experimental models have addressed the relationship between gut microbiota composition and physical exercise....Collectively, these findings indicate that modulation of the microbiota by exercise depends not only on the physiological state of the individual, but also on the diet.

A total of 15 phyla were detected, in order of presence: Bacteroidetes (54%), Firmicutes (44%), Proteobacteria (0.96%), Tenericutes (0.39%), Verrucomicrobia (0.11%), Euryarchaeota (0.08%), Actinobacteria (0.07%), Lentisphaerae (0.06%), Cyanobacteria (0.050%), Spirochaetes (0.04%), Fusobacteria (0.014%), Elusimicrobia (0.009%), Synergistetes (0.007%), kTM7 (0.003%), and Acidobacteria (0.0001%). Acidobacteria (2 subjects), Elusimicrobia (2 subjects) and Spirochaetes (2 subjects) phyla were detected only in sedentary subjects.... At the genus level, there were significant differences in eleven genera: Bifidobacterium, Barnesiellaceae, Odoribacter, Paraprevotella, Turicibacter, Clostridiales, Coprococcus, Ruminococcus, and two unknown genera of Ruminococcaceae family. Given the importance of some bacterial species in health, the presence of Bifidobacterium longum, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Roseburia hominis, Akkermansia muciniphila was measured by qPCR. Analyses revealed a more significant abundance of F. prautznnii, R. hominis and A. muciniphila in active than in sedentary women.

Among all the genera studied, the abundance of eleven of them was significantly different between the active and sedentary group, with Paraprevotella and an unclassified genus of the Desulfovibrionaceae family specifically associated with sedentarism parameters, while the remaining genera where largely associated with diet parameters.....Nonetheless, as exercise and diet often go hand in hand, an active lifestyle is frequently associated with a high consumption of fruits and vegetables, whereas sedentarism is associated with the consumption of high-calorie and fatty foods. Indeed, exercise interventions in human populations have resulted in an improvement in diet habits. Although the diets were similar in our study regarding total carbohydrates, protein and fat content, significant differences were observed for fiber (higher in the active group) and processed meat (higher in the sedentary group).

 Once again, research supports that you should get off your butt and exercise! Or do a moderate to vigorous physical activity at least several times a week, which can include housework, gardening, dancing, swimming, or walking briskly. Most important is to MOVE. And why is this so important? Not just for physical health and prevention of certain diseases, but also for the health of your brain, especially as it ages.

The research looked at both 31 young healthy adults (18 to 31 years old) and 26 older healthy adults (55 to 74 years old), assessed their cardiorespiratory (heart/lung) fitness on the treadmill, gave them a number of neurological tests, and also a memory task while their brain activity was observed during functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). They found that the older adults with higher heart/lung fitness had better performance on the memory task and greater brain activity in multiple regions than the older adults with low heart/lung fitness. The increased brain activity in those with higher levels of heart/lung fitness occurred in brain regions typically affected by age-related decline - in other words, higher fitness in older adults reduced some age-related differences.

The researchers thought these and other study results indicate that heart/lung fitness (cardiorespiratory fitness) may keep the brain younger (that is, it preserves neurological function and "neuroplasticity") as people age. They pointed out that some recent studies have revealed that lower cardiorespiratory (heart/lung) fitness was associated with accelerated cognitive decline and that older adults with lower heart/lung fitness had an increased risk for dementia.

From Health Day: Fitter Seniors May Have Healthier Brains

Good heart and lung fitness can benefit older adults' brains, researchers report.They assessed the heart/lung fitness of healthy young adults (aged 18 to 31) and older adults (aged 55 to 74), and compared their ability to learn and remember the names of strangers in photos. MRI scans recorded images of their brain activity as they learned the names.

The older adults had more difficulty with the memory test than the young adults. But older adults with high levels of heart/lung fitness did better on the test and showed more brain activity when learning new names than those of their peers with lower levels of heart/lung fitness. The increased brain activity in those with higher levels of heart/lung fitness occurred in regions typically affected by age-related decline. The findings suggest that heart/lung fitness may also help keep the brain healthy as people get older, according to the researchers. But the study did not prove a cause-and-effect link.

"Importantly, [heart/lung fitness] is a modifiable health factor that can be improved through regular engagement in moderate to vigorous sustained physical activity such as walking, jogging, swimming or dancing," said study corresponding author Scott Hayes....The researchers said high levels of fitness will not prevent brain decline, but may slow it.

An excerpt from the original study, from Cortex: FMRI activity during associative encoding is correlated with cardiorespiratory fitness and source memory performance in older adults

For brain regions in which older adults showed reduced activation relative to young adults, including left inferior frontal gyrus, medial frontal gyrus, bilateral thalamus, and fusiform gyrus, we observed a step-wise pattern, with the greatest activation in young adults, followed by high CRF [cardiorespiratory fitness] older adults and then low CRF older adults, indicating that higher fitness in older adults reduced age-related differences. These findings suggest that CRF supports successful brain maintenance in aging, in that it promotes the preservation of neural function seen in young adults (Nyberg, Lovden et al., 2012). 

 Worried about whether being physically active just on weekends can make a difference in health if the rest of the week is spent sitting all day? Well, there is good news! Being a "weekend warrior" (one who exercises or is active only one or two days a week) may also offer health benefits according to a new study (associated with lower death rates from all causes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease).

Current government guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity (such as brisk walking or tennis), or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity (such as jogging or swimming laps), or equivalent combinations of moderate and vigorous physical activity. From Science Daily:

'Weekend warriors' have lower risk of death from cancer, cardiovascular disease

Physical activity patterns characterized by just one or two sessions a week may be enough to reduce deaths in men and women from all causes, cardiovascular disease (CVD) and cancer, regardless of adherence to physical activity guidelines, a new study of over 63,000 adults reports. The finding suggests that less frequent bouts of activity, which might fit more easily into a busy lifestyle, offer significant health benefits, even in the obese and those with medical risk factors.

Regular physical activity is associated with lower risks of death from all causes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, and has long been recommended to control weight, cholesterol, and blood pressure. The World Health Organization recommends that adults do at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity, or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity, or equivalent combinations.

But research is yet to establish how the frequency and total weekly dose of activity might best be combined to achieve health benefits. For example, individuals could meet current guidelines by doing 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity five days of the week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity on just one day of the week. Those who do all their exercise on one or two days of the week are known as 'weekend warriors'. 

 Looks like exercise, even 20 minutes of moderate activity such as brisk walking, has beneficial anti-inflammatory health effects. Inflammation is part of the body's normal immune response - it is the body's attempt to heal itself after an injury and tissue damage, and to defend itself against infection from foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. However, chronic inflammation (e.g., what can occur in obesity, diabetes, and poor lifestyle) can lead to serious health issues and is linked to cancer, heart disease, etc. So lowering chronic (systemic) inflammation is good. From Science Daily:

Exercise ... It does a body good: 20 minutes can act as anti-inflammatory

It's well known that regular physical activity has health benefits, including weight control, strengthening the heart, bones and muscles and reducing the risk of certain diseases. Recently, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine found how just one session of moderate exercise can also act as an anti-inflammatory. The findings have encouraging implications for chronic diseases like arthritis, fibromyalgia and for more pervasive conditions, such as obesity.

The study, recently published online in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, found one 20-minute session of moderate exercise can stimulate the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory cellular response. The brain and sympathetic nervous system -- a pathway that serves to accelerate heart rate and raise blood pressure, among other things -- are activated during exercise to enable the body to carry out work. Hormones, such as epinephrine and norepinephrine, are released into the blood stream and trigger adrenergic receptors, which immune cells possess. This activation process during exercise produces immunological responses, which include the production of many cytokines, or proteins, one of which is TNF -- a key regulator of local and systemic inflammation that also helps boost immune responses.

The 47 study participants walked on a treadmill at an intensity level that was adjusted based on their fitness level. Blood was collected before and immediately after the 20 minute exercise challenge."Our study shows a workout session doesn't actually have to be intense to have anti-inflammatory effects. Twenty minutes to half-an-hour of moderate exercise, including fast walking, appears to be sufficient," said Hong.

Inflammation is a vital part of the body's immune response. It is the body's attempt to heal itself after an injury; defend itself against foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria; and repair damaged tissue. However, chronic inflammation can lead to serious health issues associated with diabetes, celiac disease, obesity and other conditions.

  The wonderful blog posts of Dr. John Mandrola (physician, blogger, and columnist at Medscape) are always thoughtful, and this latest points out things a number of studies have pointed out for a while. Which is to stop obsessing or focusing on "preventive tests" and screenings and numbers, and instead focus on a healthy lifestyle - which means getting regular exercise or physical activity, don't smoke cigarettes, maintaining a healthy weight, and eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes (think Mediterranean-style diet). Don't want overdiagnosis and overtreatment (here, here, here, and here). Excerpts from Dr. John M:

I am changing…

The main thing that has changed about me is my views as a doctor, especially when it comes to dealing with people who complain of nothing. Medicine is most pure when we treat people with illness. The infirmed come to us with a problem and we use our intelligence, experience and procedural skills to help them. It’s immensely gratifying. The joy of helping people still negates the stifling burden of administrative nonsense. I’ll do your damn corporate safety modules one more year because helping sick people get well feels so good.

But when people complain of nothing, our first job is to do no harm. I know prevention of disease is better than treating it, but the process of prevention gets dicey. When we prescribe things (screening tests, statins, aspirin, diabetes drugs etc) to people who complain of nothing, we should have the highest evidence these therapies deliver benefit. Too often, we cite eminence rather than evidence.

I’ve come to believe the medical profession is too paternalistic, too arrogant. I fear the medicalization of the human condition. These days, I order fewer tests. Medical tests put people into the “system,” on the metaphorical train of healthcare. This train accelerates quickly, and it’s often hard to get off. Even a simple echo scares me. I could tell you stories.

More often than not, I tell patients to stop checking their “numbers.” If they insist on health numbers, I favor three–the scale, the belt size and a Timex to measure walking speed.

A 2002 article from Dr. David Sackett (a pioneer of evidence-based medicine) perfectly captures my views on preventive medicine. It’s called The Arrogance of Preventive Medicine. It’s worth a look, now more than ever.

 Image result for human heart in human body wikipedia Heart attacks run in the family? Does this mean you are doomed to also have a heart attack? Well, the good news from a large study is that a healthy lifestyle (with at least 3 of these 4 behaviors: not currently smoking, not being obese, regular physical activity at least once per week, and eating a good diet)  lowers the risk of a heart attack by nearly 50% even in those with a high genetic risk for heart attacks. (This is compared to those with an unhealthy lifestyle, which is none or only one healthy behavior.)  In this study a healthy diet was one with lots of fruits, nuts, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and dairy products, and a reduced amount of refined grains, processed meats, red meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, and trans fats.

The researchers also reversed the question and asked: "If you happen to inherit good genes, can a bad lifestyle offset that? We actually found yes." The risk of heart attack is also reduced nearly 50% in those people with good genes and a good lifestyle. BOTTOM LINE: Healthy lifestyle counts, no matter whether heart disease and heart attacks run in the family or not. There is an interaction between the two, From Science Daily:

Following a healthy lifestyle can greatly reduce genetic heart attack risk

It is well known that following a healthy lifestyle -- not smoking, avoiding excess weight and getting regular exercise -- can reduce the risk of heart disease. But what about people who have inherited gene variants known to increase risk? A study led by Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) investigators has found that, even among those at high genetic risk, following a healthy lifestyle can cut in half the probability of a heart attack or similar event

"The basic message of our study is that DNA is not destiny," says Sekar Kathiresan, MD...."Many individuals -- both physicians and members of the general public -- have looked on genetic risk as unavoidable, but for heart attack that does not appear to be the case."  

In order to investigate whether a healthy lifestyle can mitigate genetic risk, the multi-institutional research team analyzed genetic and clinical data from more than 55,000 participants in four large-scale studies. Three of these studies....followed participants for up to 20 years. Each participant in the current analysis was assigned a genetic risk score....The investigators used four AHA-defined lifestyle factors -- no current smoking; lack of obesity (defined as a body mass index less than 30); physical exercise at least once a week; and a healthy dietary pattern -- to determine a lifestyle score, whether participants had a favorable (three or four healthy factors), intermediate (two factors) or unfavorable (one or no healthy factors) lifestyle.

Across all three prospective studies, a higher genetic risk score significantly increased the incidence of coronary events -- as much as 90 percent in those at highest risk. While known risk factors such as a family history and elevated LDL cholesterol were also associated with an elevated genetic risk score, genetic risk was the most powerful contributor to cardiac risk. Similarly, each healthy lifestyle factor reduced risk, and the unfavorable lifestyle group also had higher levels of hypertension, diabetes and other known risk factors upon entering the studies.

Within each genetic risk category, the presence of lifestyle factors significantly altered the risk of coronary events to such an extent that following a favorable lifestyle could reduce the incidence of coronary events by 50 percent in those with the highest genetic risk scores. Among participants in the BioImage study, both genetic and lifestyle factors were independently associated with levels of calcium-containing plaque in the coronary arteries, and healthy lifestyle factors were associated with less extensive plaque within each genetic risk group. [Original study]

  Eating lots of fruits and vegetables (more than 10 servings a day!)  is linked to better cognitive functioning in both normal weight and overweight adults (both young and older adults), and may delay the onset of cognitive decline that occurs with aging and also dementia. Overweight and obese older adults with a daily fruit and vegetable consumption of less than 5 servings generally had worse cognitive functioning. Higher levels of physical activity and higher daily fruit and vegetable consumption were both associated with better cognitive functioning. Cognitive functioning generally refers to a person’s ability to reason and think, the mental processes needed to gather and process information, and all aspects of language and memory.

The York University researchers found that fruit and vegetable consumptionphysical activity, and BMI or body mass index (normal, overweight, obese) all appear to interact in how a person mentally functions (cognitive functioning), especially as they age. The ideal goal as one ages is to preserve the mind. It appears that eating lots of fruits and vegetables daily (10 or more servings), being physically active (this includes daily walks), and being a healthy weight help with this goal. It helps to also be highly educated (or read books?) so that the brain has a "cognitive reserve",

Why is daily fruit and vegetable consumption (FVC) good for cognitive functioning and the brain? Studies find that daily consumption of fruits and vegetables is strongly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and age-related declines. They appear to be "protective" against cognitive decline. The study researchers point out that fruits and vegetables contain high quantities of vitamin C and E, fiber, micronutrients, flavonoids, beta-carotenes and other classes of phytochemicals. These are important in various ways: "they modulate detoxifying enzymes, stimulate the immune system, modulate cholesterol synthesis, and act as antibacterial, antioxidant or neuroprotective agents." NOTE: A serving of fruit is generally 1 medium fruit or 1/2 cup of fruit. A serving of vegetables is 1 cup of raw leafy greens or 1/2 cup of other vegetables. From Medical Xpress:

Healthy living linked to higher brain function, delay of dementia

It's tempting to dip into the leftover Halloween treats, but new research out of York University has found eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, combined with regular exercise, leads to better cognitive functioning for younger and older adults, and may delay the onset of dementia. York U post-doctoral fellow Alina Cohen and her team, including Professors Chris I. Ardern and Joseph Baker, looked at cross-sectional data of 45,522 participants, age 30 to 80+, from the 2012 annual component of the Canadian Community Health Survey.

What they found was that for those who are normal weight or overweight, but not obese, eating more than 10 servings of fruit and vegetable daily was linked to better cognitive functioning. When moderate exercise was added, those eating less than five servings, reported better cognitive functioning. Higher levels of physical activity were linked to the relationship between higher daily fruit and vegetable consumption and better cognitive performance. Those with higher body mass indexes, low activity levels and fruit and vegetable consumption were associated with poorer cognitive functioning.

More details from the original study in the Journal of Public Health: Physical activity mediates the relationship between fruit and vegetable consumption and cognitive functioning: a cross-sectional analysis

Results: Higher BMIs, lower PA [physical activity] and FVC [fruit and vegetable consumption] were associated with poorer cognitive functioning. Additionally, PA statistically mediated the relationship between FVC and cognitive function (Sobel test: t = −3.15; P < 0.002); and higher education levels and daily FVC were associated with better cognitive function (P < 0.001). Conclusion: Higher PA levels were associated with better cognitive functioning in younger and older adults. Also, higher daily FVC and education levels were associated with better cognitive scores.

Individuals who were normal weight or overweight and reported a FVC of >10 servings per day reported better cognitive functioning scores than those who reported <10 servings, as well as those individuals with obesity . As well, both active and inactive individuals who reported a FVC of >10 servings per day had better cognitive scores than those who consumed fewer servings. However, in those who were moderately active, individuals with a daily FVC of <5 or 5–10 servings reported better cognitive functioning than those with a daily FVC of 10 or more servings; this may have resulted because of underestimations of the number of servings of fruits and vegetables actually consumed... Thus, increasing FVC and PA levels as well as having a healthy BMI may aid in the delay of cognitive decline.

Results also indicated that higher education levels along with a daily FVC of five or more servings were associated with better cognitive functioning. Education may be assisting in the process of delaying cognitive decline by increasing cognitive reserve, the ability of the human brain to cope with damage by using different brain processes to retain the ability to function well. Cognitive reserve is developed through intellectual stimulation and translates into a higher volume of connections between neurons and stronger rates of cerebral blood flow.

 Another study finding brain changes from playing tackle football - this time measurable brain changes were found in boys 8 to 13 years old after just one season of playing football. None of the boys had received a concussion diagnosis during the season. The changes in the white matter of the brain (and detected with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were from the cumulative subconcussive head impacts that occur in football - the result of repetitive hits to the head during games and practices.

No one knows if the brains of football players fully recover after the football season. But these findings are worrisome. Especially because last year researchers found that NFL players who had begun playing  football before age 12 had a higher risk of altered brain development, as compared to players who started later (see post). Currently nearly 3 million students participate in youth tackle football programs across the United States. Some are calling for young players to only play flag or touch football, and to only play tackle football starting with the teenage years. From Science Daily:

Brain changes seen in youth football players without concussion

Researchers have found measurable brain changes in children after a single season of playing youth football, even without a concussion diagnosis, according to a new study published online in the journal Radiology.

"Most investigators believe that concussions are bad for the brain, but what about the hundreds of head impacts during a season of football that don't lead to a clinically diagnosed concussion? We wanted to see if cumulative sub-concussive head impacts have any effects on the developing brain," said the study's lead author, Christopher T. Whitlow, M.D., Ph.D., M.H.A., associate professor and chief of neuroradiology at Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.

The research team studied 25 male youth football players between the ages of 8 and 13. Head impact data were recorded using the Head Impact Telemetry System (HITs), which has been used in other studies of high school and collegiate football to assess the frequency and severity of helmet impacts....The study participants underwent pre- and post-season evaluation with multimodal neuroimaging, including diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) of the brain. DTI is an advanced MRI technique, which identifies microstructural changes in the brain's white matter. 

The brain's white matter is composed of millions of nerve fibers called axons that act like communication cables connecting various regions of the brain. Diffusion tensor imaging produces a measurement, called fractional anisotropy (FA), of the movement of water molecules in the brain and along axons. In healthy white matter, the direction of water movement is fairly uniform and measures high in FA. When water movement is more random, FA values decrease, which has been associated with brain abnormalities in some studies.

The results showed a significant relationship between head impacts and decreased FA in specific white matter tracts and tract terminals, where white and gray matters meet. "We found that these young players who experienced more cumulative head impact exposure had more changes in brain white matter, specifically decreased FA, in specific parts of the brain," Dr. Whitlow said. "These decreases in FA caught our attention, because similar changes in FA have been reported in the setting of mild TBI."

It is important to note that none of the players had any signs or symptoms of concussion."We do not know if there are important functional changes related to these findings, or if these effects will be associated with any negative long-term outcomes," Dr. Whitlow said. "Football is a physical sport, and players may have many physical changes after a season of play that completely resolve. These changes in the brain may also simply resolve with little consequence. However, more research is needed to understand the meaning of these changes to the long-term health of our youngest athletes." [Original study]

Image result for soccer ball Many studies have discussed the short-term and long-term harm to the brain from playing tackle football, especially when starting the game at an early age (before the age of 12) , and from getting concussions and sub-concussions. But relatively little has been said about the possibility of similar harm from soccer (see post).

Finally a study looking at the practice of heading the ball in soccer - where yes, the person is directly hitting the soccer ball with his or her head, whether during a game or routine heading practice. Any harm from that? Yes. There were measurable brain function changes in both male and female young adults after heading a soccer ball 20 times during one practice session. While the changes ("short and long term memory function and corticomotor inhibition") were temporary, the researchers were concerned over possible long term brain effects (perhaps similar to those found in football players) when there are many practice sessions and soccer games, over many years. From Science Daily:

Heading a soccer ball causes instant changes to the brain

Researchers from the University of Stirling have explored the true impact of heading a soccer ball, identifying small but significant changes in brain function immediately after routine heading practice. The study from Scotland's University for Sporting Excellence published in EBioMedicine is the first to detect direct changes in the brain after players are exposed to everyday head impacts, as opposed to clinical brain injuries like concussion.

A group of soccer ball players headed a ball 20 times, fired from a machine designed to simulate the pace and power of a corner kick. Before and after the heading sessions, scientists tested players' brain function and memoryIncreased inhibition in the brain was detected after just a single session of heading. Memory test performance was also reduced by between 41 and 67 per cent, with effects normalising within 24 hours. Whether the changes to the brain remain temporary after repeated exposure to a soccer ball and the long-term consequences of heading on brain health, are yet to be investigated.

Played by more than 250 million people worldwide, the 'beautiful game' often involves intentional and repeated bursts of heading a ball. In recent years the possible link between brain injury in sport and increased risk of dementia has focused attention on whether soccer ball heading might lead to long term consequences for brain health.

Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Ietswaart from Psychology at the University of Stirling, said: "In light of growing concern about the effects of contact sport on brain health, we wanted to see if our brain reacts instantly to heading a soccer ball. Using a drill most amateur and professional teams would be familiar with, we found there was in fact increased inhibition in the brain immediately after heading and that performance on memory tests was reduced significantly.

"Although the changes were temporary, we believe they are significant to brain health, particularly if they happen over and over again as they do in soccer ball heading. With large numbers of people around the world participating in this sport, it is important that they are aware of what is happening inside the brain and the lasting effect this may have." In the study, scientists measured levels of brain function using a basic neuroscience technique called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).  (Original study)

 We all know that exercise is beneficial for health. Research suggests that exercising out in nature is best for several varied reasons -  including that it lowers markers of inflammation, and that it's good for our gut microbiome (community of gut microbes). The following excerpts are written by Dr. John La Puma encouraging other doctors to prescribe exercise for their patients and why. An important message of his is that exercise is more important than a drug prescription for a number of conditions, including diabetes prevention, reducing the risk of recurrence of several cancers (he mentions breast cancer, but it also holds for prostate cancer). While exercising and walking out in nature may be best, any exercise anywhere is better than no exercise. (Other posts on exercise as prescription medicine are here and here; and check the category exercise for all exercise research posts). From Medscape:

Rx: Exercise Daily -- Outdoors. Doctor's Orders

With dazzling Olympic feats on display all summer, too many of my patients are still literally immobilized. Medically, sitting too long shuts off the enzyme lipoprotein lipase. In people who are sedentary, the enzyme doesn't break down fat to create energy, like it should. But medical prescription for exercise has lagged even the slowest runner. Why? Some reasons are time, training, and money. Time especially is a scarce commodity: The average clinician visit lasts just 20 minutes. Fitness is a shamefully small part of medical training. And as doctors, we don't get paid for discussing exercise, let alone monitoring a prescription and assessing the response. 

Finally, there are practical reasons. Clinicians find it difficult to persuade patients that exercise is more effective than medication for any number of conditions, including stroke recovery, diabetes prevention, and treatment of low back pain. Regular exercise reduces the risk for recurrent breast cancer by approximately 50%. Given all these reasons, it's easy to see why fitness prescriptions are seldom more than an afterthought. Yet even without formally prescribing the frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise, clinicians can speak with patients and families about fitness in inspiring, life-changing ways.

Because clinicians have a secret weapon to use that most people don't even know about—location. Exercising in nature (in sight of and preferably near water or greenery, whether a deserted beach or an urban park) is better. Walking city streets and the office itself can be harder on your health than you think. In both environments, your attention is demanded and directed—sometimes by digital interruptions, sometimes by vehicles, toxins, or duties. In nature, your attention is drawn, not pushed, to a variety of often unexpected but not unpleasant sounds, colors, aromas, textures, and forms.

A recent Stanford study of nature therapy showed significantly reduced rumination after a 90-minute walk in nature, compared with a 90-minute walk through an urban environment. On MRI, "nature walkers" showed lower activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness, the subgenual prefrontal cortex, compared with "urban walkers." In other words, nature offers a sense of something bigger than ourselves on which to focus. MRIs show the way the brain changes when that sense occurs to us.

Exercising in nature may improve a person's immune system by enriching the diversity in the microbiota. Microbiota buffer the immune system against chronic stress-related disease. They appear to act as a hormone-producing organ, not simply a collection of beneficial bacteria. Microbiota are sensitive and responsive to physical environmental changes as well as dietary ones. So, exercise in nature may favorably boost microbiota.

And finally, exercise in nature is clinically preferred and calming. A Norwegian study showed that exercise in nature and in view of nature improves both mood and diastolic blood pressure vs exercise without nature. A Chinese study showed higher energy levels, and lower levels of interleukin-6 and tumor necrosis factor (both markers of inflammation), in a forest walking group compared with an urban exercising group. A British study showed significantly improved mood and self-esteem with "green" exercise, with the largest benefits from 5-minute engagements. Five minutes!

Of course, there are areas in our country and world in which it is dangerous to walk, never mind exercise. It may not be as easy to generate sweat and intensity with outdoor exercise as it is with indoor exercise. It may be stormy, or baking hot, or otherwise harsh outside, and the cool recesses of one's own bedroom or the gym may be just perfect for you today. And with the 2013 total cost of inactivity estimated at $24.7 billion for the United States, and with the public sector bearing almost one half of that expense, any exercise anywhere is better than none.  Yet physicians have a therapeutic tool few others in our culture wield—a prescription pad—and we have every patient's attention, at least for a few minutes. Patients try harder when doctors advise them about fitness.