How Physical Activity Can Help Your Brain Health As Well As Your Body

It’s well known that engaging in an active lifestyle can help to minimize the risk of various chronic health conditions including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer. And now, there is mounting evidence showing that physical activity may also play a role in brain health by enhancing cognition, and offering protection against neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, in addition to reducing the incidence and severity of many mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. This research comes at a critical time as estimates reveal that by 2050, more than 115 million people around the world will suffer from dementia.

Understanding Exercise

To gain a better understanding of the role of physical activity in brain health, let’s first take a look at the different types of physical activity.walking for brain health

Exercise is categorized as either aerobic or anaerobic.

  • Aerobic Exercise (cardiovascular exercise)
    • Gets your heart pumping.
    • Aims to improve overall cardiovascular fitness.
    • Examples include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling, etc.
  • Anaerobic Exercise (resistance training)
    • Uses short bursts of high energy.
    • Aims to increase overall strength, power, and muscle mass.
    • Examples include weightlifting, isometrics, sprinting, etc.

Brain Benefits of Exercise

Physical activity helps to improve both thinking and memory in both direct and indirect ways. Some of the direct benefits of physical activity are due to the fact that exercise helps to reduce insulin resistance, decrease inflammation, and stimulate growth factor release, which all improve brain health. Indirectly, some of the benefits of physical activity include improved mood and sleep, as well as decreased stress and anxiety.

Research has found that both aerobic and anaerobic exercise improve cognitive performance and functional plasticity in healthy adults, by positively influencing the part of the brain called the hippocampus. This region of the brain is thought to be responsible for emotion, memory, and spatial navigation. Changes and damage to the hippocampus that can occur with aging are often associated with dementia.

Studies have revealed that aerobic training – walking 3 days per week for a period of 12 months – can significantly increase hippocampal volume in healthy older individuals. The effects of this physical activity program equate to reversing the age-related decrease in hippocampal volume by approximately two years.  A recent study supports these findings as the researchers found that aerobic exercise, particularly 120 minutes per week, helps to increase hippocampal volume in older adults that have begun to show signs of mild cognitive impairment.

So what does this mean?

With the aging population, and the expected rise in those affected by dementia, physical activity may prove to play a critical role in the prevention of age-related cognitive decline.  So get out there and get moving!


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