Exercise Your Body for a Younger Looking, Healthier brain
By wlr Contributor Christina Neal Personal Trainer and Accredited Life Coach
Need motivation to exercise? Read on. Regular cardiovascular exercise will boost your memory, improve brain health and help to reduce risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Christina Macdonald explains how regular exercise can help mental function
We all know that regular exercise burns calories and can boost metabolic rate, but sometimes we still have days where we lack the motivation to get up and exercise, especially when we feel tired or stressed.
When motivation is low, reminding yourself of the health benefits of regular exercise may help move you from the sofa to the gym, to the park or to your favourite exercise class.
You might have started exercising to lose weight, but there are numerous other benefits too – regular activity can also help you sleep better, improve heart health, reduce the risk of stroke and even reduce your risk of developing certain cancers.
And if you still need further motivation to exercise, then here it is – exercise regularly and you will protect your memory and improve brain health and mental function.
Indeed, experts have recently concluded that regular cardiovascular exercise like brisk walking, swimming, running and cycling is good for your brain – with experts acknowledging it can boost memory, improve cognitive function and significantly reduce your risk of developing dementia.
A recent presentation by Dr Laura Baker of Wake Forest University Health Sciences in North California at the Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference in July, revealed some fascinating information about what happens to the brain when we exercise regularly.
Dr Baker revealed the results of several trials, which demonstrated that exercise slows the progression of atrophy (wastage) and improves cognition (our ability to think, learn and understand).
A study, conducted over a 12-week period that entailed participants doing regular cardiovascular exercise, resulted in a thickening of the cortex – the brain’s outer layer of neural tissue, which plays an important role in our consciousness.
The study unveiled during Baker’s presentation consisted of two exercise groups.
One group performed high intensity aerobic exercise working at around 70-80 per cent of maximum heart rate (MHR) for six months on a randomised control trial.
A second group performed low intensity exercises (also for six months), including stretching, working at around 35% of their maximum heart rate.
Both groups exercised for 45 minutes each time, four days a week, supervised by a trainer, and all study participants were sedentary at the beginning.
The study, which included 71 people with an average age of 65 years, measured tau and amyloid in the brain (proteins that can build up in the brain and cause Alzheimer’s disease).
In the aerobic, group, there was a decrease in levels of tau and an increase in blood flow to the frontal lobes of the brain.
The stretching group experienced no increase in blood flow.
The group that worked at a higher intensity saw an improvement in mild cognitive impairment.
Six months is key
Exercising for less than six months showed no cognitive benefit, but exercising for more than six months increased executive function, but not short-term memory. Exercising for a year could improve short-term memory. Previous evidence seems to back this up.
A research paper published on the website, the Journal of Physiology in February, concluded that aerobic exercise like running enhances hippocampal neurogenesis in rats – a process responsible for populating the growing brain with neurons.
The highest levels of hippocampal neurogenesis (also known as ‘AHN’) were found in rats that ran voluntarily, leading the study authors to conclude that sustained aerobic exercise has an important role to play in improving AHN.
Another study from UCLA Medical Centre and University of Pittsburgh, suggested that aerobic exercise could increase brain volume in older people too, so it’s not just younger exercisers who benefit.
The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in March, involved 876 patients, with an average age of 78, across four separate research sites.
Study participants were asked about their physical activities and had MRI scans of their brains to measure volumes of brain structures, including parts of the brain linked with memory and Alzheimer’s disease.
The results indicated that increasing physical activity was associated with increases in the volume of certain parts of the brain. Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research and Development at Alzheimer’s Society, says: “This paper adds to this body of evidence by suggesting that different kids of exercise can have a positive effect on the brain.”
Further research in the US that was part of the Framingham Heart Study revealed that those with good fitness levels in their 40s had larger brains than their unfit peers.
Those with lower fitness levels had smaller brains by the equivalent of one year of ageing. Subjects were tested over a period of 20 years.
Reduced dementia risk
And there are specific benefits. Regular cardiovascular exercise has also been shown to reduce the risk of dementia – which means symptoms of cognitive impairment that interfere with our memory and our ability to solve problems and perform normal daily tasks.
According to Alzheimer’s Society, the combined results of 11 studies have shown that regular cardiovascular exercise reduces dementia risk by 30 per cent and Alzheimer’s disease by 45 per cent – the latter is the most common form of dementia that is believed to affect around 850,000 people in the UK. Dr Emer MacSweeney, CEO &
Medical Director of cognitive experts Re:Cognition Health (http://www.re-cognitionhealth.com), who are conducting clinical trials into a drug to slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s, says: “Carefully conducted clinical trials have shown that the genes which are recognised to be responsible for cognitive impairment in Alzheimer’s disease become less effective in individuals who pursue a programme of relatively intense and sustained exercise, compared to a matched group of individuals who do not undertake this exercise programme.
Those undertaking this exercise routine appear to be relatively ‘protected’ from developing the short memory and executive cognitive functions associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”
Regular exercise could also reduce the risk of developing vascular dementia, the second most common form of dementia that is caused by a reduced blood flow to the brain, usually due to a series of small strokes. It affects around 150,000 people in the UK according to Alzheimer’s Society and risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight. Risk could be reduced through exercise.
Being active can help to maintain a healthy body weight and reduce cholesterol levels, both of which are risk factors for vascular dementia.
Controlling blood pressure
“It is well recognised that controlling blood pressure is one of the most important factors in reducing the development of vascular dementia in the brain,” adds Dr MacSweeney. “Many factors contribute to controlling blood pressure, and as a general rule, what is good for the heart is good for the brain. Sustained, intense exercise is being recognised as very important medicine for the brain as well as the heart.”
Even those who already have a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease will benefit from being active at all stages of the condition. According to Alzheimer’s Society, exercise such as walking or jogging will improve cognition and may even slow down mental decline. It recommends swimming, walking, dancing and gardening.
Commenting on the study revealed by Dr Laura Baker, Dr MacSweeney adds: “This is very good news for the young and the old, as it looks like we can, at least in part, determine our own destiny through an energetic and sustained exercise programme.”
And if further motivation were needed to get active, exercise appears to have anti-ageing benefits too. Dr MacSweeney says: “Research also revealed that 40 per cent of all anti-ageing genes were stimulated as a result of exercise. Leading a sedentary lifestyle may have a negative affect on brain health. Poor fitness levels can lead to an increased risk of the expression of genetic biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease.”
A study that consisted of brain scans and published in Neurobiology and Aging revealed that brains of obese or overweight people appeared to be ten years older than those who were leaner. This occurred from middle aged onwards.
A higher BMI (body mass index) seemed to correspond to a smaller volume of white matter – nerve fibres in the brain that form connections between nerve cells and allow nerves to communicate – MRI scans of 473 people were looked at aged between 20 to 87 years old. Those over the age of 37 who were overweight or obese had a smaller volume of white matter than those who were leaner.
It certainly seems that being active and leaner will result in improved brain function and better brain health in general. That said, those who unveiled the results of the studies are keen to stress that exercise must be consistent – the key study was based on four times a week for 45 minutes each time – and at a reasonable intensity where participants were working hard.
Make exercise a regular part of your life and you’ll reap the benefits in so many ways that go far beyond trimming your waistline and boosting your self-esteem.
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