Scientists have known for some time that exercise reduces the risk of developing dementia, but did not know if there was a direct link or whether ill people were simply unable to work out, as previously mentioned. Specific steps should be followed to increase life expectancy, and exercise is considered one way to extend life. The Body Reboot book reveals how a low carb, high fat diet can improve health. Here Jody Braverman, LiveStrong.com, reflects on how aerobic exercise improves brain health:
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“Love it or hate it, there's no denying that exercise is good for you. Regular aerobic exercise lowers your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. And in the short-term, a good workout clears the mental cobwebs, helps you think clearly and makes you more productive.
Mounting evidence shows that those cerebral effects aren't just short term. Increased blood flow to the brain, among other factors, has a physiological impact that can improve cognitive function, according to the World Health Organization's (WHO) 2019 Guidelines on Risk Reduction of Cognitive Decline and Dementia. If ever there was a time to start exercising, it's now!
Benefits of Aerobic Exercise for Brain Health
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The idea that exercise strengthens the mind is nothing new. An article published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal in 1887 states that exercise “may be made to contribute to brain growth, and to the symmetrical development of the mental faculties.”
Fast forward 130 years and researchers still aren't exactly sure how these benefits work — but they're learning. Cynthia Green, Ph.D., president of Total Brain Health and assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, says it's likely a combination of factors, including better blood flow to the brain and better management of risk factors such as hypertension and excess weight.
Here are a few other factors that science says make a big difference:
1. Exercise Reduces Brain Inflammation
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Widespread chronic inflammation in the body contributes to the development of diseases like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It also affects the brain and can lead to compromised cognitive function, mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's.
But aerobic exercise is a powerful tool for suppressing inflammation in the body. A 2017 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that just 20 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise decreased markers of inflammation in 47 healthy volunteers.
And when researchers of a 2015 study published in Journal of Inflammation looked at the effects of aerobic exercise on sleep-deprived rats, they found that regular aerobic exercise decreased pro-inflammatory responses in the rats' hippocampal region — the area of the brain responsible for memory, learning and emotion.
The researchers concluded that exercise has a neuroprotective effect that can counter hippocampal inflammation due to sleep deprivation. For those who suffer from sleep deprivation, that's good news. However, it doesn't mean it's OK to get less sleep as long as you exercise. Sleep plays a major role in memory processing and brain plasticity, according to the authors of the study.
2. Exercise Boosts Brain Function
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The brain uses about 50 percent of the glucose energy in the body, and it relies on glucose metabolism for optimal functioning. Abnormalities in glucose metabolism in the brain can affect a number of neurological and psychiatric disorders, including neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's.
Regular moderate-intensity exercise can also improve glucose metabolism in the brain, according to results of a 2017 study published in Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. The study involved 93 late middle-age adults at high genetic risk of the disease. Researchers measured the daily activity of participants using accelerometers that detected light, moderate and strenuous activity, and then analyzed the data.
Researchers found that moderate-intensity activity was associated with improved glucose metabolism. In addition, those who engaged in moderate activity for more than 68 minutes each day showed greater results than those who spent less time exercising.
3. Exercise Helps Your Brain Process Information
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Comprising more than 50 percent of the brain, white matter connects the different regions of the brain so they can communicate. Neuronal fibers covered in electrical insulation called myelin make this communication fast and efficient, so you can process information quickly and learn new things faster. When the formation of new myelin — called myelination — slows or stops, it affects cognitive function. It's also been associated with psychological disorders including depression and schizophrenia.
The good news is that myelin production can be stimulated through physical exercise. A 2016 study in Journal of Alzheimer's Disease examined the correlation between cardiorespiratory fitness and white matter integrity in 81 older adults, some with mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. MCI results in a slight reduction in memory and thinking skills, and it affects 15 to 20 percent of adults over the age of 65, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Participants were assessed using VO2 aerobic testing — the gold standard for measuring cardiovascular fitness — and also completed memory and reasoning tests. Researchers examined their brains using a specialized brain scan to assess white matter fiber integrity and found that higher levels of cardiovascular fitness correlated with increased white matter integrity and better cognitive performance among the participants with mild impairment.
4. Exercise Improves Memory and Learning
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The WHO 2019 guidelines recommend exercise as an intervention that can help reduce a person's risk of cognitive decline. Aerobic exercise, specifically, has been shown to have an even more positive effect than other forms of fitness.
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