How Exercise Can Boost Brain Health

A group of women socialize after an exercise class.
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Exercise has long been known to prevent heart disease, and diabetes while improving your mood and energy, among other benefits. Now, evidence is piling up that staying active is beneficial for the brain, too.

Moderate exercise has been shown to both delay dementia and Alzheimer's Disease, as well as slow its progression. While there is no cure for Alzheimer's Disease or dementia, exercise offers a way for sufferers to take some control over this illness. And for good reason.

Research has shown that exercise can actually make your brain volume grow.

In a study released about a year ago, adults with what's called mild cognitive impairment a precursor to Alzheimer's disease were split into two groups.

In one of them, participants stretched four times per week for six months. In the other group, they worked out on a treadmill, stationary bike or elliptical trainer on the same schedule.

Brain scans of both groups revealed a difference: the exercisers lost less brain volume compared to the stretchers. The adults in this study had an average age in their 60s, and other studies have shown benefits for exercise in adults older than 70.

Matthew Marse, an exercise physiologist at AdventHealth Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, says modern research has corrected old beliefs about the brain as fixed and unchanging. Instead, the brain keeps adapting and can even repair after damage.

Exercise has the ability to release chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells and the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, Marse says.

Any amount of activity is beneficial to brain health

And exercise doesn't mean racing on the treadmill or even jogging. Any activity that gets your heart pumping and lungs breathing faster counts. That includes gardening, walking briskly, seated exercises and swimming.

Of course, all the traditional benefits of exercise in older adults also apply to those with Alzheimers or dementia. Other benefits of physical activity include:

  • Improved performance of daily activities like dressing, cleaning and cooking
  • Maintained independence and self-reliance
  • Reduced risk of falls by improving balance
  • Opportunities to interact with others
  • Reduced risk factors, including high blood pressure and cholesterol, for many illnesses

There is a level of exercise appropriate for everyone, including those in the later stage of dementia. Heres the information you need to take advantage of the latest research findings.

Tips to get started

Your exercise program can be influenced by your age, experience and preferences. Younger patients with dementia may be able to undertake more strenuous exercise, for example.

Those who have not exercised in some time should consider seeking a doctors advice, according to the United Kingdom-based Alzheimer's Society. That recommendation also applies to those with:

  • Heart problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Unexplained chest pain
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Bone or joint problems
  • Breathing problems
  • Balance problems
  • Frequent falls

It's important to note that these conditions may not prevent you from exercising indeed, many are improved by it. Still, medical advice is recommended to ensure a safe exercise plan.

Also, for the benefit of lifelong activity, pick something you enjoy. Suggestions from the U.S. Alzheimer's Association include bike riding, gardening and walking the dog.

Get social, get thinking

Another common piece of advice for those with dementia is to stay engaged with the people around them.

Marse, the AdventHealth exercise physiologist, says a one-on-one session with a professional will help develop a personal relationship. That's important because it helps clients communicate about their illness and show emotion.

Classes are also a great way to keep people accountable and motivated, Marse says.

People who have dementia or Alzheimers tend to become isolated and have limited social interactions, and a group class is a great way to combat that, he says. In my personal experience, I notice a change in mood and body language from the start of the class compared to the end of the class.

The Global Council on Brain Health reports positive effects of social interaction on the brain. For example, one study examined the effects of volunteering in schools on the brain of older adults.

The experience of volunteering halted brain declines in areas vulnerable to dementia over two years, scans showed. In men, the volunteering even reversed the decline.

Tips to incorporate social activity into exercise include:

  • Volunteer at a local shelter
  • Join a local choir
  • Share activities with friends and family
  • Help at an afterschool program
  • Walk with a buddy
  • Take a dance class
  • Join an exercise group

And, if you can, try to incorporate mental challenges into your physical activity. For example, playing golf requires strategy about your next shot as well as a calculation of your score.

A 2015 study called the Synapse Project compared the brain benefits of socializing against more challenging activities namely quilting and digital photography. Scans revealed the photographers and quilters showed increased activity in key parts of the brain. Those who only socialized did not see these benefits.

How much is right?

There is no universally accepted standard for the correct amount of exercise. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) presents two options for aerobic activity for those 65 and older:

  • Moderately intense aerobic exercise 30 minutes a day, five days a week
  • Vigorously intense aerobic exercise 20 minutes a day, three days a week

The ACSM also recommends the following for all older adults:

  • Eight to 10 strength-training exercises, with 10 to 15 repetitions of each exercise, twice or three times per week
  • Balance exercises for those at risk of falling
  • Have a physical activity plan.

Weightlifting is an often-overlooked form of exercise for older adults. Marse pointed to a study that found women who performed strength training at least once a week had greater blood flow to the brain. Low blood flow in the brain is a risk factor in dementia.

The bottom line, though, is to start where you are. Exercise is not an all-or-nothing activity If you can walk for a few minutes, start there.

As Marse put it, one of the best ways to start and consistently stay active is to make an appointment with yourself or a professional and treat it the same way you would a doctors appointment.

What a caregiver can do

The Alzheimers Association has a set of tips to help caregivers get their loved one involved in activities and exercise. They include:

  • Choose activities the person has always enjoyed, and adjust as needed to match their current abilities.
  • Take note of what the person enjoys and when they seem happy, anxious, distracted or irritable.
  • Consider what activities the person begins without direction, and incorporate them into a daily routine.
  • Focus on enjoyment: Find activities that take advantage of remaining skills.
  • Choose an activity connected to the persons work life.
  • Get the person started: Those with dementia may have the energy to do things but lack the initiative to plan and get going.

Exercise changes with illness

Though there is a place for physical activity at every stage of Alzheimers Disease, it may take a different form as the illness progresses. The Alzheimer's Society has several suggestions for exercise at different stages. Here are some of the ways to shape an exercise routine for you or a loved one:

Early to middle stages:
  • Classes held by local community or sports centers
  • Everyday activity, like walking and housework
  • Physical activities the person previously enjoyed may still be appropriate
  • Gardening and lawn work
  • Dancing, including couple or group sessions
  • Seated exercises, include marching, raising the heels and toes, raising the arms toward the ceiling, making circles with the arms and moving from sitting to standing
Later stages:
  • Walking between rooms
  • Moving to sit in a different chair at each meal time
  • Shuffle alongside the edge of the bed while seated
  • Balance while standing
  • Sit unsupported for a few minutes

A clear connection

It's hard to say exactly why exercise helps the brain. It may be that its benefits come from a stronger heart, which boosts blood and oxygen flow to the brain.

No matter the cause, exercise is one of the key lifestyle choices along with staying mentally active, eating a diet good for your heart and staying engaged with other people that can help boost brain power and reduce the risks of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimers and dementia.

Learn more about AdventHealth's Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation program.

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