You know that exercise is good for your heart. Now, as if you needed any more incentive to hit the gym, there’s proof that getting your regular workouts in is good for your brain as well.
According to researchers at Cardiff University, men who engag
e in regular exercise are 60 percent less likely to suffer from dementia and other forms of cognitive decline later in life. The study followed more than 2,000 men for 35 years and asked them to self-report their healthy behaviors in that time. Overall, and unsurprisingly, the mean who lead the healthiest lifestyles, meaning they exercised, ate right, didn’t smoke, limited alcohol consumption and maintained a healthy weight, had an overall lower risk for serious health complications, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and dementia.
Given that studies show that more than half of all people who reach age 85 have some form of dementia or cognitive decline, evidence such as this points to the need for adults to stay active well into their later years to stay healthy. In short, the health of your brain depends on the health of your body.
Bulk up All of Your Muscles
While the Cardiff University study shows that overall good health can reduce the risk of dementia, several other studies support the claim that exercise is good for the brain.
One study, at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois measured the brain mass of 120 adults, half of whom engaged in 45 minute workouts three days per week. The other 60 participants remained sedentary. At the end of the study, the brain volume of the exercisers actually increased by about 2 percent, while those who didn’t work out actually lost 1.5 percent of their brain mass in the same period of time. In addition, further tests indicated that the subjects who gained brain mass actually improved their performance on memory and cognitive functioning tests.
Not only can exercise increase brain mass, but it also increases blood flow to the brain, which improves overall cognitive abilities. As doctors point out, exercise is helps with maintaining a healthy weight, lowering cholesterol and lowering blood pressure — all factors that help your heart, which in turn helps your brain.
Reduced Risk, Improved Symptoms
While regular exercise throughout midlife is beneficial in terms of reducing dementia risk, it is also beneficial to those who have already been diagnosed with the condition. Certain medications can help make it easier for patients to perform their daily functions, and those treatments are often more effective when the patient engages in some form of physical activity each day.
In a recent report published in The Cochrane Review, which updated previous research on the benefits of exercise to dementia patients, multiple studies indicated that light to moderate physical activity improved both cognitive functioning and the ability to complete everyday activities, such as walking short distances and getting up from chairs. Experts note that such improvements not only benefit the patients themselves, but also their caregivers, who may have a slightly decreased burden when their loved ones can do more for themselves. However, while there is promising evidence that dementia patients can benefit from exercise, there hasn’t yet been any study to determine the type or duration of exercise that is best.
Incorporating Exercise As You Age
Some older adults are reluctant to begin an exercise program, believing that the damage is done, and that it’s too late to reap the benefits of a healthy lifestyle after years of not working out. That’s untrue, though, as doctors are quick to point out that starting exercise even in later life can significantly increase the likelihood of aging healthily. A British study found that adults that exercised throughout their lives were seven times more likely to age healthily than those who were sedentary, but even adults who started a moderate exercise program after age 64 had a three to four times greater likelihood of avoiding serious health issues in old age.
For that reason, even if you haven’t seen the inside of a gym in decades or don’t even own a pair of sneakers, it’s worth starting an exercise program. Talk with your doctor first to determine whether you have any limitations and to establish goals. Consider meeting with a personal trainer who specializes in working with older adults who can help you develop an effective routine and avoid injury.
If you choose to go it alone, some of the best exercises include:
Walking. Walking for 45 minutes at a moderate pace just three times a week has proven brain boosting benefits.
Yoga. Yoga not only helps with relaxation, but it can improve your flexibility. Tai chi is another good choice, as it helps improve focus and balance, which helps prevent falls.
Swimming. Swimming is gentle on the joints, and is especially beneficial to those living with arthritis.
Weight lifting. A regular weight-lifting regimen (30 minutes, three times per week) strengthens muscles, improves balance and helps prevent osteoporosis in addition to improving your overall fitness.
Getting older might keep you from doing CrossFit or other extreme fitness challenges, but it doesn’t mean you need to relegate yourself to a rocking chair for the rest of your life. Commit to regular exercise and keep your mind sharp and your health good for as long as possible.