The next time you slip into your running shoes, grab your tennis racket or hit the basketball court, you could be working out more than just your body. New research suggests that regular physical activity could also be protecting your brain from declining with age.
In a recent study published in the journal Neurology, the mental and physical activity levels of nearly 700 participants in their late 60s and early 70s were examined. The results suggest that regular physical activity prevented brain atrophy, reduced the loss of gray matter and protected the brain’s white matter — which serves as the wiring for the brain. Furthermore, the results indicate that regular physical activity may be even better than intellectual activities at preventing a decline of mental acuity with age.
“Exercise is known to improve cognitive function,” says Abraham Chyung, MD, a neurologist at Scripps Clinic in San Diego. “However, the details of the relationship between exercise and memory function is not clearly understood.”
Dr. Chyung notes that exercise appears to involve increasing the body’s level of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) — a secreted protein which is known to promote the health of nerve cells. BDNF is active in areas of the brain vital to learning, higher thinking and memory.
While protecting the brain over time is a benefit of exercise, there are more immediate effects that can be felt from developing a regular fitness routine.
“Physical exercise gets the blood pumping which increases the supply of oxygen and nutrients that the brain needs for optimum functioning,” says Dr. Chyung. “Therefore, exercise can be helpful for a number of things including waking up, becoming more alert and improving attention.”
All forms of exercise carry certain benefits, but which ones are the best for your brain is unclear.
“It is suggested that cardiovascular exercise is better than stretching, however, the exercise does not have to be exhausting,” adds Dr. Chyung. “For example, going for regular walks seems to be of benefit. Running or other more rigorous activities is not necessary, but the increased exertion may provide a more pronounced beneficial effect than less strenuous forms of exercise.”
In the past, research has focused mainly on the benefits cardiovascular exercise to the brain. However, recent studies have shown evidence to suggest that strength training may also be beneficial and help preserve memory function.
It may not be easy to adopt a new exercise routine, but with so many physical and mental benefits, making it a priority is important for all aspects of good health.
“I make it a point to remind my patients that the brain is part of the physical body,” says Dr. Chyung. “Exercising to improve one’s physical health can be a very good thing for the brain.”