Get Moving to Protect Your Brain
Many of us take part in “brain exercise” activities. Puzzles, games, online classes and special computer programs provide some of the mental stimulation we need to stay sharp. But did you know that exercising our whole body is just as important for brain health? Exercise increases blood flow to the brain. It not only reduces damaging chemicals in the brain, but also increases the release of beneficial hormones and proteins. It promotes the growth of new brain cells. It helps us control harmful stress, and improves sleep, which is the time when memories are preserved and the brain cleans itself.
Exercise is beneficial for the brain at every stage of life. It is even beneficial for people who are living with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. A University of California San Francisco study released on January 7, 2022, showed that older adults who remain physically active have higher levels of proteins that are important for memory and thinking. Neurology professor Kaitlin Casaletto looked at data from Rush University in Chicago, and reported, “When elderly people stay active, their brains have more of a class of proteins that enhances the connections between neurons to maintain healthy cognition.”
Exercise benefits the brain over our lifetime—and the effects also can be immediate! University of Maryland experts administered memory tests to older volunteers about half an hour after they worked out, and again on the next day. They found that the volunteers were better able to remember things on the days that they had exercised. But the effect also added up over time. “Just like a muscle adapts to repeated use, single sessions of exercise may flex cognitive neural networks in ways that promote adaptations over time and lead to increased network integrity and function and allow more efficient access to memories,” explained kinesiology professor Dr. J. Carson Smith.
Even short workouts can have a noticeable effect. Researcher Michael Wheeler of the University of Western Australia conducted a study showing that even brief periods of exercise throughout the day can raise the level of beneficial proteins in the brain that improve memory and decision-making. “The study highlights that uninterrupted sitting should be avoided to maintain optimal cognition across the day, and that moderate-intensity exercise such as a brisk walk should be encouraged for the daily maintenance of brain health,” he said. He recommends periodic three-minute “exercise breaks,” also noting that exercising in the morning can provide benefits for the rest of the day.
Mix it up for a brain boost. Activities that include physical activity, mental stimulation and social connection can protect the memory more than any individual activity. A study from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia found that taking part in a variety of activities is beneficial. “Scientists once believed that genetics were the main factor influencing cognitive health but our findings show the reverse,” reported study author Sylvain Moreno. “With age, your choice of daily activities is more important than your genetics or your current cognitive skills.”
Choose a well-rounded exercise plan. Listen to music while you work out—music is good for the brain. Go for a walk outdoors if the weather is nice; studies find spending time in nature is brain healthy. And you’re more likely to exercise with the encouragement of an “exercise buddy.” While practicing safe social distancing, try dancing, walking or appropriate sports. Your routine should include aerobic, strength-building, balance and stretching exercises. If you have arthritis, vision loss or another mobility challenge, check out modified exercises. Your senior living community can offer some suggestions.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Talk to your doctor about an exercise routine that’s right for you.