People choose to exercise for many different reasons. While some people exercise to reap the physical benefits, others enjoy physical activity as a way to release stress and anxiety. As we age, exercise becomes increasingly important to our overall well-being. Consistent exercise can prevent heart disease, stroke, diabetes, lower blood pressure, and improve our mental health. What most people don’t know is that exercise can change the brain in ways that improve thinking and cognitive function. Some studies even suggest that a single exercise session can provide the same cognitive benefits as longer and more regular exercise.
Older adults are naturally more at risk of cognitive impairment when compared to other age groups. The most common cognitive impairments can be caused by medication effects, depression, and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Without taking steps to protect our brain health, we can put ourselves at risk of developing cognitive impairments in our later years. People with these types of disorders can experience a variety of symptoms, the most common of which are listed here:
• Decreased Processing Speed. Processing speed refers to the time it takes our brain to complete a mental task such as finishing an assignment, following instructions, or comprehending a conversation. It’s likely for older adults to notice cognitive changes related to their processing speed.
• Problems with Attention. Some older adults with cognitive impairments may notice that their minds wander when trying to concentrate on a specific task or conversation. This can also express itself through difficulty when focusing on more than one thing at a time.
• Memory Problems. Changes in memory are very common among older adults. Some age-related forgetfulness is normal; however, memory loss is not.
• Difficulty Expressing Oneself. Decreased speed in verbal fluency is a cognitive impairment that refers to the ability to recall vocabulary. If our verbal fluency was to decrease, we would have problems expressing ourselves in conversations.
• Losing Things. Forgetting your keys or an occasional appointment can be normal behaviors for people of all ages. However, older adults with cognitive impairment are often unable to remember important information consistently.
• Social Withdrawal. Older adults experiencing cognitive impairment may notice changes in their behavior and begin to withdraw from their normal activities as a way to disguise or hide their symptoms.
While many older adults suffer from cognitive decline, it doesn’t have to be this way for everyone. There are simple things we can do to decrease the risk of developing these impairments. Dr. Wendy Suzuki, the author of Healthy Brain, Happy Life, and member of the advisory board at Maplewood Senior Living, knows the important role exercise plays in brain health.
In an interview with KTVU FOX 2, Dr. Suzuki reported that “Keeping our bodies moving is so important. Even one walk outside releases the neurotransmitters in our brain that keep us happy and boost our mood.” In her research, Dr. Suzuki has discovered there is a biological connection between exercise, mindfulness, and action. When we exercise, our bodies feel more alive and our brains perform better.
As we exercise, our heart rate increases, causing an increase in blood flow to the brain. This allows our brains to receive more oxygen, nutrients, and proteins, while also promoting the growth of neurons. Additionally, the chemicals released in our brain during exercise can also make us feel less stressed and anxious. As she writes in her book, Dr. Suzuki believes that exercise has a direct effect on brain health and can provide a variety of benefits. Here are some of the most common benefits of physical exercise on brain health:
Reduces Stress– When we exercise regularly, our norepinephrine levels increase, which helps regulate the way our brain reacts to stress. Ultimately, exercise allows us to cope with both mental and physical stress in healthy ways.
Improves Mood– You might have heard that exercise is a natural mood booster. Exercising for just 30 minutes a day can release endorphins, which can help boost your mood while also decreasing the symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Increases Confidence– As we exercise and begin to grow and build muscle, it’s natural to feel a sense of confidence, which can carry over into many different aspects of our lives.
Prevents Cognitive Decline– Although research is limited, some studies have suggested that exercise can help keep blood flowing to the brain, which can reduce the risk of damage or deterioration. Some research has suggested that white matter fibers, which are associated with brain function, are less likely to deteriorate with consistent exercise. Other researchers believe that aerobic exercise can help slow the shrinkage of the hippocampus, which controls our memory.
Increases Creativity– You might notice feeling sharper and clear-headed after physical activity. Exercise can make us feel more alive and help spark our sense of creativity.
Decreases The Risk of Dementia– As we exercise, we decrease our chances of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression, all of which are linked to dementia.
Any type of exercise will allow you to reap the benefits of physical activity for the brain. Exercise doesn’t have to be complicated! If you don’t know where to start, you might consider one of these three simple exercises:
• Walking will increase your heart rate, allow blood and oxygen to flow to the brain, and release mood-boosting endorphins. Walking is also great for mental health, especially for those who have a hard time de-stressing and relaxing. After a 30-minute walk, you might notice feeling less agitated.
• Dancing requires our brains and bodies to communicate with each other. Remembering choreography might take some practice, but it can also help our brains stay sharp.
• Swimming or other water-based activities are great for older adults who experience joint and muscle pain. Water activities are low impact and can decrease the chance of injury.
Health is one of our top priorities at Maplewood Senior Living. Each of our communities offers group-led physical activities that are designed to pose a challenge while also prevent injury for all residents. We know exercise can be powerful, that’s why we encourage all of our residents to get moving! To learn more about our offerings, please contact us here.
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