Exercise for a better brain

Scientists are now finding that exercise has remarkable effects on the brain and can help protect both memory and thinking skills.

06 Nov 2018

The good news is that exercise slows brain ageing and can even improve our brain function.

Not long ago, scientists believed that adults were not capable of making new brain cells. However scientists are now finding that exercise has remarkable effects on the brain and can help protect both memory and thinking skills. And the reason why we should all be interested in protecting our memory and thinking skills is because the hippocampus, one of the main parts of the brain responsible for memory, does typically shrink 1% per year after the age of 50.

When we exercise, we

  • Improve our bodily functions: Exercise helps reduce high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes, which are all risk factors for dementia.  One of the best ways to slow your brain ageing is to keep the rest of your body healthy. Many medical conditions—from heart disease to depression—can affect your memory.
  • Feed our brains: Exercise increases our heart rate, which pumps more oxygen and nutrients to the brain providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.
  • Protect our brain: Increasing evidence suggests that exercise ‘turns on’ genes that produce substances such as brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). This BNDF molecule stimulates the growth of new brain cells and protects brain cells from damage. The presence of this gene provides no benefits unless it is turned on. So next time you exercise, think of the gene for this BDNF turning on and producing more of the substance and growing more brain cells.
  • Reduce causes of chronic disease: Exercise also ‘turns off’ genes that produce inflammatory molecules called cytokines. Inflammation appears to be at the centre of most chronic diseases and so this is likely to protect us.  For example, inflammation in the blood vessels may reduce the blood flow to the brain.  Also inflammation appears to be a core feature of Alzheimer’s although it is not known if this is one causal factor or a consequence of the disease.

How much exercise do we have to do?

If you are a couch potato the news is good. Even walking will help reverse the age related decline in brain volume. A recent study showed that older people who walked 40 minutes a day, 3 times a week, showed a 2% increase in the volume of the hippocampus. According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. And a study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of exercise is associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus.

If you are a couch potato try to establish a new habit. Once established, habits are easy to maintain. Some non-exercisers find it helpful to begin slowly with just a few minutes of exercise per session and then build regularly until exercise becomes a habit. Making your-self exercise regularly for a month will be the way to develop a sustainable habit.

Resistance – we are designed for it!

Resistance exercises are those that involve pushing, pulling or lifting. A review of numerous studies on the impact of resistance training suggests that regular resistance training twice per week improves cognitive performance. One study showed that, in older people with mild cognitive impairment, resistance exercise improved performance of complex cognitive skills such as planning and organisation.

Further evidence that exercise can have positive impacts on nerve cells is the work that shows that exercise is helpful in reducing the occurrence and/or impact of both Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis, both are diseases that involve impaired nerve cell function.

This news comes at a good time as the incidence of dementia continues to increase.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, dementia is a leading cause of disability in older Australians (aged 65 years or older) and the third leading cause of disability burden overall. Three in ten people over the age of 85 and almost one in ten people over 65 have dementia. Each week, there are 1,700 new cases of dementia in Australia; approx. one person every 6 minutes. This is expected to grow to 7,400 new cases each week by 2050.

So what are you waiting for?

‘This article has been reproduced with permission from Gabrielle Leahy of Retire & Flourish Pty Ltd’

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