The Power of Exercise: Lessons From the Inaugural NMT Symposium

Thanks to the support of our Board of Directors, a team of staff from SaintA had the opportunity to attend the inaugural Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics™ (NMT) symposium recently in Banff, Canada. It was a remarkable event bringing together 450 people from nine countries, six Canadian provinces, and 24 U.S. states to share practice ideas, research and lessons learned about implementing NMT.

Tim Grove

Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow at the ChildTrauma Academy, also presented at the symposium and had the audience laughing and crying, sometimes one as a result of the other. My highlights included the ability to meet people I had talked with over the phone for years – truly putting a face to a name. Another highlight was watching the other SaintA staff react to an experience that validated their work over the past seven years.

Equally compelling was Dr. Perry’s message of hope, woven throughout each of his keynotes and many of the presentations. Perhaps it was the mountains, the clean air, intellectually stimulating conversation or all of the above – inspiration was easy to find, and even easier to maintain.

The highlight I want to spend more time on, however, is from a presentation I attended with Dr. Frank MacMaster. Dr MacMaster is a highly acclaimed neuroscientist from Calgary, and his talk focused on the effects of exercise on hippocampal volume and activity. Those of you who have been following the discussion on toxic stress/trauma/and childhood adversity know that the hippocampus is a very important part of the brain – responsible for memory, learning, and many other core functions. You may also remember that there is a strong body of evidence that suggests that children who experience overwhelming, unrelenting and unsupported stressful experiences (often in the form of abuse, neglect, domestic violence, etc.) often see reductions in hippocampal size and activity, thereby affecting their inherent ability to do many of the things the world expects of them.

Dr. MacMaster and his colleagues spend a lot of their time studying the hippocampus and other parts of the brain involved in human behavior, and they had a hypothesis that a certain kind of exercise may positively impact the hippocampus – in this case for people suffering from depression. You can read about it on the University of Calgary website.

Here is the upshot of the study and the gist of the presentation: it appears as if a certain kind of aerobic exercise done three times a week actually increases hippocampal volume and activity, even in people who are experiencing depression. The potential impact of these findings is remarkable, reinforcing the power of exercise as a key intervention in the road to recovery.

While the mountains of Banff need little help to entice you to hike them, it certainly didn’t hurt to think that all of that hiking activity (especially when it got kind of steep and rigorous) was working out my hippocampus. It likely explains why my memory of Dr. MacMaster’s presentation is as vivid today as it was a few weeks ago!


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