Exercise & Your Brain

By GHI Communications Staff

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According to a 2015 Nielsen survey, the most common New Year’s resolutions have to do with getting in shape. To achieve this goal, most vow to exercise more regularly, which is good for us at any age. The National Council on Aging reports regular exercise can help older adults stay independent and prevent many health problems that come with age. But what about our brains?

Most parts of the body begin to show wear and tear as we age, and the brain is no different. Over time, neurodegeneration occurs which causes memory loss, slower reflexes and cognitive inabilities. Exercise helps keep muscles strong, blood vessels flexible and stress low. It also can enhance mental abilities, stop brain shrinkage and promote the formation of new neurons. Without a cerebral workout plan, our brain health deteriorates.

The Brain Benefits

In a recent Brain Health seminar for Goodwin House Incorporated (GHI) Life Plan Communities, Gwendolyn Beck, manager of senior health & lifeline at Virginia Hospital Center, cited a growing body of evidence that strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, stimulates and supports cognitive power and reduces dementia.

“Aerobic exercise creates higher levels of a protein known as ‘brain-derived neurotrophic factor’ which helps repair and protect the brain,” stated Beck. “We know physical exercise supports better intellectual function, reduces stress and improves our mood. But most importantly, it keeps blood vessels healthy, ensuring an optimal flow of blood to our brain.”

According to Arthur F. Kramer, Director of the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health and professor of Psychology at Northeastern University in Boston, as we age, the hippocampus — an area of our brains that is key to memory — shrinks, leading to memory problems and possibly dementia. Research by Kramer and others showed that when previously sedentary men and women 50 to 80 years old walked around a track 40 minutes a day three times a week for six months, their hippocampi actually increased in size.

Another study of nearly 900 men and women with an average age of 71 found that those who had exercised moderately or vigorously over five years — jogging, hiking, swimming, dancing — performed on a par with someone a decade younger on tests of memory and other brain skills.

Integrated Exercise

Goodwin House has recently partnered with Virginia Hospital Center to establish the Brain Health initiative. The program’s goal is to illustrate that by making the right choices each day, you can take control of your brain health. As part of the program, both Goodwin House Life Plan Communities have integrated brain health activities into their fitness facilities.

Leslie LaPlace, fitness manager at Goodwin House Alexandria, believes that the best fitness regimen incorporates not only aerobic activity, but also includes elements of balance, coordination and mental concentration.

“All the classes we offer challenge both the body and the brain,” stated LaPlace. “I always incorporate balance exercises, as well as cross-body or cross-lateral movements. For example, moving your right arm and your left leg in unison can require major body and brain coordination. At the same time, I may even call out a math or word problem — Quick, give me a 5-letter word that starts with a ‘D’ or what’s 8 + 4? — It’s not as easy as it sounds when you’re moving in different directions.”

Exercise: It’s Not Just for Gyms!

Even if you are not going to a fitness class every day, LaPlace says there are many things you can do around your house to aid with balance, exercise and ultimately brain health.

“Most people brush their teeth twice a day. I encourage my clients to maximize this time by standing on one leg while brushing. Attach a note to your mirror that reminds you of the schedule – Morning right leg, evening left leg. You have the sink right in front of you for balance safety. Similarly, alternate legs at the kitchen sink when washing dishes. These small activities can make a big difference with your balance.”

Ironically, LaPlace says that one of the best exercises you can do is not in a gym.

“Line dancing is the perfect exercise,” stated LaPlace. “Besides just getting you generally moving, line dancing integrates several brain functions at once. Remembering the steps, helping with balance and challenging your quick reflexes make it one of the best (and most fun!) exercises around.”

The Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an independent collaborative of scientists, physicians, scholars and policy experts convened by AARP to provide the best thinking on brain health for older adults, has issued recommendations around exercise and brain health, including:

  • Get 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise
  • Incorporate strength training two or more times a week
  • Lead a physically active lifestyle
  • Stay motivated by exercising with other people 

Learn more about how you can take control of your brain health by visiting the National Institute on Aging’s cognitive health resource center.

As LaPlace reminds us, “It’s only through being challenged that you grow stronger in mind and body!”