This is your brain . . . and this is your brain on the couch,” is Dr. Patrick Mueller, associate professor of physiology at Wayne State University’s approach to highlighting the detrimental effects that inactivity has on our brains and hearts.

A recent study published in the Journal of Comparative Neurology demonstrates that inactivity (not just activity, as previously thought) can change the shape of neurons in our brain, an indication that may make couch potatoes more sensitive to stimuli. This sensitivity can upset their nervous system to the point of leading to increased risk for heart problems.

Specifically, the brain changes were noted on rats; ones assessed after regular activity maintained their original brain structure and neurons but those that were inactive sprouted branches resembling tentacles. While branches are a normal way to connect healthy neurons, the inactive rats in this study had more than the typical amount of them, suggesting that a sedentary lifestyle can stress the nervous system. Such “overactivity of the sympathetic nervous system can lead to cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Mueller.

A sedentary lifestyle, not just an active one, changes our brains

“This finding is important because it adds to our understanding of how, at a cellular level, inactivity increases the risk of heart disease,” adds Dr. Mueller.

Furthermore, it’s important because as recent as 20 years ago, the majority of scientists thought that adulthood marked the time in which our brains were “fixed.” That is, once adulthood set in, the belief was that we were unable to create new brain cells or change their shape. However in years since, studies have shown exercise to play a role in helping the brain grow. This study, though, sheds light on the impact of a sedentary lifestyle.

Other research shows that about 60 percent of Americans are not receiving recommended amounts of physical activity and shockingly, that more than 25 percent of adults are not even active at all.

This study once again reinforces the importance activity has in keeping our bodies strong and healthy. We must remain aware of this, not just during American Heart Month, but every month.

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