Exercise and Your Brain
Research has long shown that moderate exercise protects against an array of chronic diseases and slows the effects of aging, but did you know that exercise also improves brain function, reduces the risk of strokes and can protect the brain from degenerative changes?
One study of senior citizens who walked regularly, showed significant improvement in memory skills compared to a sedentary control group. Walking also improved their learning ability, concentration, and abstract reasoning. Stroke risk was cut by 57% in people who walked as little as 20 minutes a day.
When the cognitive abilities of elderly women were compared, those who walked regularly were less likely to experience age-related memory loss and other declines in mental function. Researchers found that for every extra mile walked per week, there was 13% reduction in cognitive decline. In the higher-energy groups, much less cognitive decline was observed. The cognitive abilities of the participants were tested in four areas: memory, executive functioning, attention/concentration, and psychomotor speed – first before enrolling in the trial, then four months later. Compared to the control group, the exercisers showed significant improvements in the higher mental processes of memory and in “executive functions” that involve planning, organization, and the ability to juggle different intellectual tasks at the same time. Exercise had its beneficial effect in specific areas of cognitive function that are rooted in the frontal and prefrontal regions of the brain. The implication being that exercise might be able to offset some of the mental declines that are often associated with the aging process.
Physical exercise has been shown to have a protective effect on the brain and its mental processes, and may even help to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Based on exercise and health data from nearly 5,000 men and women over 65 years of age, those who exercised were less likely to lose their mental abilities or to develop dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
A five-year study at the Laval University suggests that the more a person exercises, the greater the protective benefits for the brain, particularly in women. Inactive individuals were twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s, compared to those with the highest levels of activity (exercised vigorously at least three times a week). Even light or moderate exercisers cut their risk significantly for Alzheimer’s and mental decline.
University of Illinois researchers introduced a sedentary group of people aged 60 to 75 to a fitness regime. Researchers specifically chose healthy adults that hadn’t been involved in any physical exercise for the previous 5 to 10 years. For six months, two groups did 90-minute workouts, three times a week. One group took long walks three times a week, and the other only did gentle toning and stretching exercises using weights. The walking group improved significantly in the mental tests (and improved their general fitness levels). An improvement of only 5-7% in cardio-respiratory fitness led to an improvement of up to 15% in mental tests. The non-walkers, however, did not gain any benefits for their brains.
Animal studies show physiological changes in response to exercise such as growth of cerebral blood vessels, increases in blood volume to the brain and growth of new neurons in the dentate gyrus, an area of the brain believed to be important in memory. The implication being that humans can expect similar changes from exercise. Both human and animal research consistently finds that the greatest improvements to brain function happen in older individuals that were less fit to begin with. This tells us two things. First, no matter where you sit on the health-fitness continuum, exercise will help improve your mental fitness. Second, it’s never too late to start. How about starting today?