It’s widely known that exercise is good for your physical health, regardless of your age. And research indicates that staying active mentally can help prevent or delay cognitive decline as you get older. But did you know that physical exercise can also be good for your brain?
It makes sense, if you think about it. Physical activity gets your heart rate up, which increases the flow of blood throughout your body. That brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to your brain cells, which support the vitality of the neurons in your brain.
Also consider that in people who lead a sedentary lifestyle, their heart doesn’t pump as much. Not only can their inactivity weaken their heart; it can also cause their arteries to stiffen. Both impede the flow of blood.
Makes you want to get up and get moving, doesn’t it?
In case you didn’t already know, the benefits of physical exercise don’t stop at the end of your walk or workout.
According to a neurological study published in 2013 in the journal Stroke, the brains of older men who were physically active exhibited superior blood saturation levels even when they were at rest, as compared with a control group of older men who were sedentary.
A different study published in December 2013 in the Journal of Hypertension noted that the onset of vascular disease in midlife is a “strong” risk factor for developing dementia later in life. Central arterial stiffness, the authors wrote, “is associated with accelerated brain aging and cognitive decline.”
In that study, researchers found that increased blood flow to the brain in people who had engaged in regular aerobic exercise had better composite scores on a battery of cognitive tests as compared with their sedentary counterparts. That included better scores on memory tests and attention-executive function.
Executive function comprises mental skills such as your ability to:
The people included in that study were middle-aged and had relatively normal cognitive function. So, what about older adults, and those who might already be showing signs of cognitive decline?
A more recent study, this one published in March 2021 in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, evaluated whether aerobic exercise could improve the flow of blood to the brain and reduce central arterial stiffness.
The study included 70 adults who were at least 55 years old, were sedentary and had mild cognitive impairment. Half of them participated in a program of light stretching and toning exercises. The other half began aerobic exercises—mostly brisk walking on a treadmill, initially, and then outside. They could also swim, ride a bike or (ballroom) dance.
Over the course of six months, the participants increased their exercise time until they were completing about five 30-minute exercise sessions per week.
After a year, the researchers again tested the adults who were still in the study. They found that those in the aerobic exercise group had significantly less stiffness in their carotid arteries, which was associated with significantly increased blood flow to the brain.
Of note, however, both groups had slightly better scores on most of the cognitive tests relative to their scores at the start of the study. This suggests that even mild forms of exercise, when done on a regular basis, may help slow or prevent further declines in cognition.
The researchers remarked that the social interactions the study participants had with other people at the lab may also have contributed to their improved scores on the cognitive tests.
They also believed that the adults in the aerobic exercise group eventually would have outperformed those in the stretching group with regard to cognition and memory, if the study had lasted longer than a year.
Citing a study conducted in British Columbia, a 2014 article published by Harvard Health noted that aerobic exercise appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning.
Other forms of exercise, such as resistance training and exercises intended to improve balance and muscle tone, did not demonstrate a similar effect on the hippocampus.
In the article, Heidi Godman, executive editor of the Harvard Health Letter, wrote:
“Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors— chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.
“Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.”
The most obvious step to take if you want to reduce the likelihood of cognitive decline— especially if you have a tendency to be inactive—is to get moving.
Research suggests that you might gain the most benefit from engaging in some form of aerobic exercise. This includes activities that will get your heart rate up (enough to cause at least light perspiration), such as:
You could also sign up for aerobics classes at a nearby senior center or fitness facility. That would give you the added benefit of social interaction, which can stave off depression and anxiety. It might also give you a built-in sense of accountability—and/or motivation.
You’re probably familiar with this time-honored advice, but we’ll repeat it here anyway: Before you start a new physical exercise regimen, it’s always a good idea to consult with your physician. That way, you can rule out potential physical conditions that might be exacerbated as you increase your level of activity.
The general rule of thumb is to start out slowly and gradually increase the time you spend exercising, as well as the intensity of your chosen activity.
If you’re not used to doing any exercise at all, then you might begin by taking the stairs instead of an elevator, if that’s an option for you. While out shopping or running errands, park farther away than you normally would and get some additional steps in that way.
Wellness isn’t just about physical health. There’s also your emotional, mental, social and intellectual health to consider. If one area of your life is out of balance, it can negatively affect other areas.
Residents at Emerald Heights can choose from a variety of opportunities designed to nurture every aspect of their well-being. That might include volunteering, taking in a cultural event, meeting neighbors for a delicious meal at one of our restaurants or working out with a personal trainer in our fitness center.
Do you prefer a personalized exercise routine that you can do on your own? Or would you rather participate in the fun and camaraderie of group exercise classes? Maybe you really enjoy getting out on hiking trails, where you can revel in the beauty of nature.
You’ll find all of those and many other options for taking good care of your health—including the health of your brain—here at Emerald Heights. Plus, our fitness team can provide recommendations to jump start your fitness routine or take it to the next level.
If exploring retirement communities in Washington state is on your to-do list, for yourself or a family member, then we hope you’ll consider Emerald Heights as a possibility. It’s easy to set up an appointment for a virtual visit or in-person tour—just contact us and we’ll be in touch right away.
You could also attend one of our events to get a feel for the lifestyle we offer. Our calendar includes both virtual and in-person events, so you can choose whichever type suits you best.
We’ll leave you with this parting thought: The sooner you make the move to Emerald Heights, the more time you’ll have to take advantage of all the wellness opportunities we offer!