Exercise and reducing brain aging: How staying active may benefit the brain

Post date: 6/1/2022

Brain health is closely linked to exercise, which can serve as a protective mechanism to keep your body and mind in tip-top shape. While doctors recommend exercise to almost everyone, as you begin to enter retirement, exercise becomes a vital component toward protecting yourself from a wide array of physical ailments.

Exercise can be as simple as doing leg raises while watching tv or visiting a local retirement community to participate in wellness classes. Depending on your current state of health, your doctor may recommend a unique plan of action, so be sure to chat with a primary care provider before beginning a new exercise routine.

How does it work?

The part of the brain associated with this correlation between exercise and brain wellness is the brain’s white matter. Basically, your brain has different types of “layers” that are labelled as either white or gray matter. Your brain is primarily full of what scientists refer to as white matter, which consists of things like axons and nerve fibers that are responsible for your brain being able to communicate with the rest of your body. The gray matter is responsible for certain things like muscle control and sight. Some scientists have used the following analogy: the brain’s gray matter is like the computer of the brain whereas the white matter is like the cables that connect and transmit all the information.

According to a Time article, older adults who did not participate in regular exercise had increased levels of white matter deterioration in their brains than those who did participate in regular exercise. The findings of white matter deterioration were also linked with decreased cognitive functioning and decision-making skills, which researchers state means exercise may serve as a protective mechanism against dementia.

Other researchers believe exercise may improve your body’s circulation, meaning more oxygenated blood is flowing to your brain. They suggest the increased oxygen and blood flow can decrease risks of damage, deterioration and serve as a means of repairing damaged areas of the brain. Aerobic exercise may also increase the amount of growth hormones your body produces. It’s said that growth hormones may repair and protect certain areas of your brain, specifically the white matter.

Benefits for the body equals benefits for the brain

While there is not yet any definitive evidence that increased exercise is linked to decreased rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia, there are many ongoing research studies which are examining the relationship further. Additionally, there is evidence that exercise can reduce your risk for other diseases linked to dementia.

Heart disease and stroke are some of the United States’ leading killers of men and women alike, but did you know they are also linked with dementia? Exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week can significantly lower your risk of developing heart disease or experiencing a stroke, which may also serve as a means to protect you from dementia. Additionally, obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure are all linked with cognitive decline and dementia. Regular exercise can help you prevent getting these diseases – and dementia – as well!

Benefits for depression and anxiety

Did you know depression and anxiety can cause physical damage and deterioration to your brain at any age? If you let these diseases go uncontrolled for too long, this damage can become irreversible, potentially putting you at an increased risk for cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Exercise can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and, when coupled with medication and/or psychological counseling or therapy, may eliminate symptoms altogether, reducing your risk of brain deterioration. Depression is defined as a clinical disease characterized by extreme feelings of sadness and/or a loss of enjoyment in activities you once enjoyed. These symptoms can range from mild to severe, and may also include things like changes in your sleeping patterns, changes in appetite or difficulty thinking or concentrating. If you think you have depression, be sure to chat with your doctor quickly about developing a treatment plan. Your doctor may suggest therapy, medication and even exercise to alleviate your symptoms.

Exercise can have a triple-impact, improving your body, brain and mood. According to Harvard University, exercise releases feel-good hormones called endorphins which elevate your mood, which then can spur the release of growth hormones. Those growth hormones can help your neurons grow and create new connections, benefiting both the symptoms of depression you may experience and protecting your brain from white matter deterioration. Ensuring you choose a sustainable exercise option and keep up with an exercise routine regularly will yield the best results.

What types of exercises are good for me?

While there aren’t many examples of specific exercises that are best for reducing brain aging, doctors state meeting general exercise requirements can make the largest difference for your brain health. These exercises include:

  • Aerobic exercise – Aerobics are typically performed at a moderate level of intensity over an extended period of time, and are designed to get your blood pumping. Examples include jogging, brisk walking, dancing, swimming or cycling.
  • Resistance or weight training – This form of exercise is characterized by training certain muscles against a force that generates a form of resistance on the body, allowing you to stretch and control the movement. Examples include lifting weights or using elastic bands around your knees while squatting.
  • Balance exercises – Ensuring your body has a strong core and supported spine will help you perform other exercises. It can also improve your flexibility and even reduce falls. Examples of balance exercises include general practices like yoga and tai chi, or specific exercises like one-leg stands or squats.

Protect your brain with Sun Health Wellness

Exercising is linked to your overall health, and is something to prioritize throughout your retirement. Sun Health Wellness recognizes the importance of protecting your brain health and offers a variety of classes at little-to-no-cost for residents throughout the Arizona community. Contact us to see our exercise class offerings, designed to keep you active, happy and healthy throughout your retirement.