Exercise for a Healthy Brain

Senior Couple with WeightsEveryone knows how important it is to be physically active. Some of the many physical benefits of regular exercise include improved strength, flexibility, stamina, balance and coordination. Exercise can also help with managing weight and controlling risk factors for chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol and stroke.

On the other hand, lack of activity can have serious negative consequences. In addition to an overall poorer sense of well-being, older adults who are inactive risk loss of independence, more doctor visits and hospitalizations and greater reliance on a variety of medications.

But did you know that regular exercise can also help improve brain health and cognitive functioning?

Researchers have long understood that aerobic exercise can increase blood flow to certain parts of the brain, including areas involved in learning and memory. It is believed this stimulation helps the brain with neuron formation, repairing damaged cells and strengthening connections between brain cells. And while any amount of exercise is certainly better than none, a recent study at the University of Kansas Medical Center showed that older adults who exercised more did experience greater benefits than those who exercised moderately or infrequently.

The study also suggests that the amount of time you exercise matters less than the intensity of the exercise. Participants in the study who experienced the benefits of exercise showed increased levels of focus and attention as well as improved spatial and visual processing skills. Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center continue to explore how exercise may help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Whatever your current level of fitness, it is never too late to start an exercise program or increase your physical activity. Studies have shown that even those new to regular exercise in late adulthood can experience both physical and cognitive benefits, no matter when they start.

Moderate activity totaling about 150 minutes per week is recommended. This does not necessarily mean a dedicated schedule of gym visits. Brisk walking, gardening, even cleaning house can count. You can even squeeze a few minutes here and there by finding a parking spot farthest from the mall entrance or taking stairs instead of the elevator. While over-strenuous exercise is not necessary to realize benefits, you do want to exert enough effort to get your heart beating a little faster and maybe even break a light sweat.

You may also want to consider adding weight training to your exercise routine. Weight training in older adults can improve strength and coordination. And, in a study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine, women 70 to 80 years old with mild cognitive impairment who participated in weight training also showed not just a slowing of memory loss, but actual improvement in focus and decision making. Talk to your physician or health professional about how best to incorporate weight or resistance training into your exercise plan.

Last, but not least of all, regular exercise has been proven to aid in stress relief, improving mood and reducing feelings of anxiety and depression. All this elevated sense of well-being leads to increased energy, better sleep, sharper memory and a higher degree of positivity.

So we know that exercise is good for the body. But it is also good for the mind and soul. Exercise helps you stay strong, sharp and independent. You’ll sleep better and have more energy. You will be positive and resilient. And it’s never too late to reap all these benefits. So, if you are not already exercising regularly, why not start today?

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