Most of us know that exercise is good for us. Every time a new year starts, we’re bombarded with information about the importance of a regular exercise regime to stay slim, fit and healthy. It’s true that exercise helps prevent obesity, hypertension, heart disease and type 2 diabetes – but a fit body can also mean a fit mind. It’s not just mental gymnastics that keep your brain ticking, physical exercise can also improve your brain health, so that you can stay mentally sharp as you grow older.

There is a growing body of evidence that living an active life can improve memory and the ability to learn. Regular exercise can help delay age-related cognitive decline, reduce the risk of dementia and help boost mood and prevent depression. Researchers from the University of California stated that:

‘Exercise increases brain health – just as it improves body health – and thus represents an exciting lifestyle intervention technique to improve brain plasticity, function and resistance to neurodegenerative diseases.’

Exercise and learning

Regular, sustained exercise can enhance both learning and memory, improve function and protect against brain shrinkage as we grow older. You don’t have to run a marathon to make a difference, in research, moderate exercise proved to have the greatest benefit. However it is important to keep at it, regular activity is key. In one study, people who exercised three times a week had a lower risk of developing dementia.

Exercise and stroke

Being physically active has been shown to reduce the risk of developing a stroke. Small strokes or infarcts can damage the brain and affect memory and function. This is known as vascular dementia, the second most common cause of dementia. Aerobic exercise can prevent type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular diseases, which are all risk factors for stroke. There is also emerging evidence that muscle strength training can also have a protective effect.

Exercise and mood

Activity may be a little painful at the time but it can also help you switch off from life’s troubles and traumas. Exercise protects our bodies and minds from psychological stress. It helps burn off stress hormones, provides a distraction from problems and helps us get a good night’s rest.

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Exercise stimulates the release of the body’s feel good hormones, endorphins. These ease pain, provide a sense of wellbeing and help us get the sleep we need. Exercise also increases levels of the chemical messenger serotonin in the brain.

Serotonin affects mood, in fact antidepressants like Prozac work by upping increasing the body’s serotonin levels, so exercise can work as an antidepressant.

Research has consistently shown that exercise can improve mood and reduce depression and anxiety. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends exercise in the treatment of mild clinical depression. Depression is much more common in the elderly, it has a significant impact on health, wellbeing and quality of life, making exercise an important consideration for older adults.

What type of exercise?

Active aging can reduce disability and boost quality of life- but what exercise is best?

Aerobic activities like walking, cycling, swimming and sports can get your heart beating and the blood pumping, to improve the health of both brain and body.

Pilates, Tai Chi and Yoga can improve balance, flexibility and core-strength, improving mobility and helping to prevent falls.

Building and maintaining muscle mass with resistance training is important for the function of brain and body. Studies demonstrated that individuals with stronger leg muscles have better brain health and cognitive function as they age. Researchers from King’s London discovered that leg strength was the biggest factor affecting metal function. They believe that:

‘Leg strength is a marker of the kind of physical activity that is good for your brain.’

Building strength requires resistance training- but that doesn’t have to involve dumbbells and gyms. Working with your own body weight is a very effective way of working your muscles.

Squats, dips or press-ups can get those muscles flexing and growing. Try squats holding onto a chair or press-ups against a wall if you’re feeling weak, shaky or nervous. You’ll be stronger and your brain health will benefit too.

Exercise and age

Increasing age can bring with it illness, pain and disability. These can all limit your ability to exercise and affect your confidence. However, every little helps. Even taking part in modest amounts of exercise can help delay dementia and improve function and boost brain health.

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Try making small changes to daily life. Park at the far side of the car-park so you have to walk a little further, take the stairs not the lift, or take-up dancing or golf to improve your level of fitness. If your mobility is impaired, chair-based sessions can provide a good starting point and boost your confidence and fitness, ask your GP for a physio referral if you have significant disabilities or complex health needs.

It’s never too late to exercise

Exercise and brain health are important whether you’re eight or eighty. It’s about being fit so that you can stay well and make the most out of life. Aerobic activity can keep your whole body healthy from your heart and lungs to your brain. Resistance training will prevent muscle loss as you grow older and help maintain your bone mass, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Low-impact, gentler activities like yoga and plates will maintain your balance and flexibility.

It’s not just about the health of your brain and body. Regular exercise can help ensure you can still perform everyday activities like getting out of the bath, climbing the stairs or standing up from a chair. Physical activity can protect against dementia and cognitive decline and but it can also help you live safely, independently and well – whatever your age.

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Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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