Healthy Heart, Healthy Mind – The Science Behind Exercise and Brain Health for Seniors
Remember the days when exercise seemed effortless? Staying fit and healthy as a teen was straightforward, but as the clock ticks, it’s harder for our bodies to keep up. Reflexes and coordination start to slow and we start to lose muscle mass. Exercise may no longer be as easy as it once was, but, according to science, incorporating it into our lives can have enormous benefits in healthy aging.
Perhaps more surprisingly, physical exercise plays an important role in maintaining our brain health as we age as well.
Your Brain is your Heart’s best Customer
Even though your brain is only about two or three percent of your body mass, it consumes over 20 percent of your blood supply! It also represents 20% of your body’s glucose consumption. The brain is a tremendous energy hog. Turn off it’s blood supply and you’re unconscious with seconds and dead within minutes. Because of this, anything that improves your circulation will help your brain to function better. The benefits of exercise for your circulation are well established, and since your brain is the biggest user of this circulation, it too will be a beneficiary. Other things you can do to improve your circulation include keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol under control, and quitting smoking. It is no surprise that improvements in each of these factors are associated with better brain health and a lowered risk of dementia.
The Synaptitude Lifestyle Assessment is a free tool for determining how your brain is being affected by stress right now. Quickly answer some questions and see how you can improve your health with evidence-backed techniques for managing stress.
Growing New Neurons
Beyond these benefits of healthy circulation, physical exercise has another direct benefit for your brain. Do you ever see boomers running marathons and wonder why they do it at their age? Those older marathoners are onto something. Exercise can be valuable for your mental health, brain functioning and cognition. It used to be thought that we were born with all the neurons we were ever going to have and that we slowly lost them (hopefully only a few!) as we got older. That turns out to be incorrect, and in a few parts of our brains, including those parts important for forming new memories, like the Hippocampus, we’re actually making new neurons every day. Neurons are the brain cells that you use to sense, move, and think. The brain of a couch potato creates around thirty thousand new neurons every week. But, by adding physical exercise to your routine, you can double or triple the number of new neurons you make next week! These new baby neurons are chatterboxes, firing actively, talking to their friends and older siblings, and helping you to form new memories and develop a more positive attitude.
Everyone knows the amazing rush you can feel after spending some time doing physical exercise, and these new neurons are part of that process. Physical exercise strengthens your brain and intensifies how you perceive the world around you. The effects of growing new neurons can have long-lasting positive effects. My Synaptitude cofounder, Dr. Teresa Lui Ambrose, a Canada Research Chair at the University of British Columbia, studied a group of aging Canadian women who were at risk for dementia. She compared the effects of a relaxation program with that of a focussed exercise program both of which went on for six months. She found that the women in the exercise group had better cognitive performance than those women who were simply given a relaxation program and that they were less likely to develop dementia in the two years after the program ended. .As we age, our brains tend to shrink, including those parts critical for memory formation like the hippocampus, but brain
imaging studies have shown that this shrinkage can be avoided in individuals who perform regular exercise. Increasing your fitness and thus growing new neurons, is good for both you and your brain.
What kind of exercise should I do?
The good news is that doing even a little bit of exercise is already better than doing nothing.
Incorporating short and simple activities like walking, gardening, and cycling for at least 20
minutes a day can promote brain function. The exact amount and type of exercise that you
should do will depend on many factors, including your age and fitness level. The appropriate
amount and type of activity for a fit 60 year old will be very different than what is appropriate for a frail 85 year old. When thinking about exercise, many people would focus on cardio activities like, running, swimming, or bicycling. However scientific studies have shown important benefits of strength (resistance) training in older adults for the brain. A study of a group of 70 year old women in Australia showed that doing light strength training like light pilates or weight lifting for 6 months improved participants’ cognitive health. They showed sharper muscle control and improvements in memory. They also showed changes in brain connectivity and increased thickness in parts of their cortex. Adding resistance training alongside cardio is not only good for the brain, but it also keeps your workout routine fresh and fun. Remember that resistance training does not have to mean bulking up by lifting heavyweights. Weight-bearing exercises like yoga, dancing, hiking, and tennis are all great.
Planning Your Exercise Regime
Having a balanced exercise routine that includes both cardio and strength training exercises can improve your overall brain health and decrease the risks associated with aging. Walking, cycling, and swimming can provide better blood supply to our brain helping its function. Many studies have shown that exercise makes us less susceptible to the negative effects of stress and can help us to concentrate. Strength training can sharpen muscle control while decreasing the risk of falls and improving your balance. Creating and sticking to a balanced exercise routine can be challenging. In many cases, all you need is support, and someone else to lean on for accountability. That’s why we created Synaptitude’s brain fitness program. Join Synaptitude and you will receive personalized strategies on how to optimize your physical activity and track your progress. To learn more about the program, check out Synaptitude’s free brain health lifestyle assessment.