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Exercise and your brain: How physical activity promotes brain health

An old man is holding a basketball

As we age, we may notice changes in our memory or find that it takes longer to process information. While this is a frustrating realization, studies now support the idea that regular exercise can improve cognition and reduce the risk of falling.

We may not be able to stop the aging process, but we can age better. Recent studies now show that physical activity and cognitive functioning are interrelated. Being physically active, even once a month, it seems associated with higher mental states later in life.

The bottom line? Regular exercise benefits the brain, just like other parts of the body.

What does healthy brain function look like?

Regular exercise activates neural pathways in the brain. Repeating healthy behaviors strengthens brain cells, strengthens connections and improves brain function.

“As we age, our processing speed slows down,” says the Nebraska Medicine neurologist Daniel Murman, MD ‚ÄúStarting at age 30, we see a gradual decline with each decade. In normal cognitive aging, people can continue with daily functioning. When our brain functions weaken to the point where we can’t do everyday activities, like driving, cooking or managing finances, that’s when we start to worry.”

Interestingly, fluid intelligence (processing speed) tends to decline as we age, but crystallized intelligence (wisdom and knowledge) improves and stabilizes. Exercise and an overall healthy lifestyle not only boost our overall health, but can also slow the decline of fluid intelligence.

How does exercise benefit your brain?

A healthy lifestyle promotes brain health by providing resilience, which can delay or slow the progression of memory loss or conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“While we can’t quite prove cause and effect, there are quite a few studies that support the idea that physically active people have better cognitive function as they age,” says Dr. Murman. “Specifically, there seems to be an improvement in processing speed (executive functions in the brain).”

Brain chemicals released during exercise help develop brain connections

Nerve growth associated with activity and exercise is key to keeping our brains healthy. “Our brain’s nerve cells communicate through a synapse (a connection between nerve cells),” explains Dr. Murman. “The more connections, the more synapses, which leads to better brain function. As we age, there is a natural loss of synapses, but physical activity increases the density of synapses, which helps us think more clearly.”

Exercise reduces the overall risk of disease

Changes in blood flow affect nerve growth in the brain. Exercise promotes cardiovascular health, improving blood flow to all body organs, including the brain. It helps maintain a healthy body weight, controls problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and reduces the risk of heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.

“Over the past 50 years, there seems to be some evidence that the decline in dementia rates may be partially related to better cardiovascular health,” adds Dr. Murman.

Exercise reduces stress

Stress can affect our overall health, but it is also harmful to brain health. High alertness causes the release of stress hormones in the body. Over time, persistently high levels of cortisol can cause some shrinkage of the hippocampus (the part of the brain that deals with memory). Reducing stress and lowering cortisol levels benefits many aspects of well-being, including brain health.

What happens to the brain if you don’t exercise?

“Studies suggest that as a person ages, cognitive decline may be faster in those who do not exercise than in those who do,” says Dr. Murman. “Some activity is always better than none at all. Some research shows that exercising even once a month makes a difference, but more is better, and it’s never too late to start.”

Want to learn more? Check out ours 6 tips to keep your brain healthy as you age.

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