Physical activity impacts every aspect of your life. Exercise helps maintain a healthy weight, aids in digestion, lessens the risk of Osteoporosis, wards off diabetes, helps regulate blood pressure, and improves cardiac strength (just to name a few benefits). Any amount of physical activity can help. Regardless of your age or fitness level, physical activity can help your quality of life. What many people don’t realize is that every moment of physical activity also helps improve cognitive health.
We’ve shared the benefits of exercise before- and they really do impact the body from head to toe:
- Reduces pain and inflammation
- Reduces the risk of diabetes
- Helps maintain a healthy weight
- Support bone and joint health
- Reduces anxiety and supports mental health
- Facilitates interpersonal relationships that support a healthy lifestyle
- Improves sleep
- Reduces the risk of certain types of cancer
The more immediate benefits are just one layer of the positive impact of exercise. In fact, studies show that people who work out on a regular basis may lower their risk of dying from a wide variety of illnesses by up to 50%. Despite all the proven benefits of exercise, many Americans are still inactive. New studies give us yet another reason to get moving- that exercise can also support our cognitive health and help maintain it as we age is significant.
According to the American Heart Association getting 150 minutes per week (30 minutes, five days a week) of moderate-intensity activity. Whether walking, biking, or hiking, try to work in that 150 minutes of exercise. It doesn’t have to be all at once. As we discussed in a previous post, any amount throughout the day will add up in the end. If possible, 10 minutes of consecutive exercise is best. Don’t worry how fast you’re moving. Just move and keep moving.
Recent studies exploring the association between exercise and cognitive health mirror the same findings- any movement is great, but the more you move, the better. In one study, those who moved more scored better on the memory and thinking tests, and every increase in physical activity by one standard deviation was associated with a 31% lower risk of dementia, the researchers reported. The association between physical activity and cognitive function remained consistent even after the study authors accounted for the participants’ brain pathology and whether or not they had dementia, according to the study.
“We know that physical exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, is very beneficial for maintaining brain health,” says neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD. “You can make a major difference in terms of how your body is functioning and, as a result, how your brain is functioning.”
In a recent study, 160 sedentary older people with mild cognitive impairment were assigned to take part in several options. They could do aerobic exercise (three times a week for 45 minutes per session), eat a heart-healthy Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, combine aerobic exercise with the DASH diet, or receive health education.
The study found that during the the six-month study, those who followed the DASH diet alone did not improve on assessments of executive function (responsible for tasks like planning, problem-solving and multitasking), while the health-education group’s function worsened. However, those who exercised showed improvements in thinking and memory, and those who combined exercise and the DASH diet improved even more, it was reported.
Regular physical activity can also reduce your risk of cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One study found that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those who are active.
Need some ideas to get you started? Check out our weekly exercises, here.
How does exercise help cognitive health?
Physical activity may benefit the brain in a number of ways, such as:
- Promoting cardiovascular health.
- Improving blood flow to the brain.
- Reducing inflammation.
- Lowering levels of stress hormones.
All of these factors can adversely affect cognition, Dr. Bonner-Jackson explains.
Sources explain that exercise may provide physical benefits to the brain, by increasing the thickness of the cerebral cortex and improving the integrity of your white matter, the nerve fibers that connect areas of the brain’s nerve-cell-rich gray matter. It also promotes neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt throughout life. “One of the key places that happens is in the hippocampus, which is a very important area of the brain for memory,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson explains.
Several studies have been conducted on older humans to better understand the relation of aerobic fitness to brain and cognition. One study, focused on the effects of cognitive function in older adults found,
“Normal aging results in the loss of brain tissue, with [significantly] larger tissue loss evidenced in the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortices. As such, cognitive functions [promoted] by these brain regions (such as those involved in cognitive control and memory) are expected to decay more dramatically than other aspects of cognition. Specifically, age-related decreases in gray matter volume have been associated with decrements in a variety of cognitive control processes.”
Researchers across studies have speculated that an active lifestyle may help decrease age-related loss in regions of the brain that support “top-down” cognitive control. The same preventative benefits also occurred within a variety of populations with diseases including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and schizophrenia.
We’ve all heard the research that exercise is important to maintain our health, but most often the findings surrounded how it impacts weight or risk of diseases tied to a higher weight. These new studies show how impactful exercise truly is to our entire well being. The amazing thing is it doesn’t require equipment, or an incredible amount of time, and anybody can participate- the important thing is that we all get moving.