It’s well known that exercise can help support a healthy weight, prevent heart disease and lower the risk of diabetes. However, recent research has shown the benefits of exercise on the brain and mental health. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, a regular exercise routine can decrease the effects of stress on the body, boost mood, and enhance memory and cognition. Some studies even suggest that when it comes to exercise and brain health, a single workout session can provide the same cognitive benefits as a longer and more regular session. Our brains control aspects of our thinking, remembering, and decision-making, all of which affect elements of our daily lives. As we get older, it becomes increasingly important to protect, support, and nourish our brains to maintain our brain health.
What is Brain Health?
According to the National Institute on Aging, brain health refers to how well a person’s brain functions across several different areas. These aspects of brain health include:
- Cognitive health — How well you think, learn and remember
- Motor function — How well you make and control movements, including balance
- Emotional function — How well you interpret and respond to emotions (both pleasant and unpleasant)
- Tactile function — How well you feel and respond to sensations of touch — including pressure, pain and temperature
Growing research suggests that making small changes to your daily routine, such as implementing an exercise routine, could help you function better for longer. Exercise can also help reduce your risk of age-related memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain at Risk
- 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 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 were 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 a 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.
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.
How Does Exercise Affect the Brain?
So what does exercise do for your brain? As we exercise, our heart rate goes up, causing an increase in blood flow to the brain. This allows our brain to receive more oxygen, nutrients, and proteins, while also promoting the growth of neurons. In addition, the chemicals released in our brain during exercise can also make us feel less stressed and anxious. Exercising is one of the most beneficial activities we can do to protect and maintain our cognitive abilities like learning, thinking, memory and reasoning. Here are just a few of the ways exercise and brain health work together:
- Decreases anxiety — When we exercise, neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin get released into the brain, which can help decrease feelings of anxiety and depression. These neurotransmitters act as our body’s natural “feel good” hormones. Just 20-30 minutes of physical activity can release these chemicals and help you boost your mood and decrease feelings of anxiety.
- Improves concentration — Experts suggest that improved concentration and focus are a direct result of 30 minutes of exercise. Workouts that increase the heart rate such as walking, running, swimming, and cycling are especially helpful in improving focus. In addition, exercise can also sharpen reaction times and reflexes.
- Reduces stress — One important benefit of regular exercise and the brain is that 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.
- 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. In addition, 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.
- 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.
- Promotes new cell growth — Researchers have found that exercise promotes the birth of new brain cells, which supports cognitive function. In addition, aerobic exercises can help improve communication between brain cells, boost blood flow to the brain, and increase overall cognitive function.
Protecting the Brain through Exercise at Maplewood Senior Living
Prioritizing exercise and brain health can help us live longer and more independent lives. Residents at Maplewood Senior Living have access to state-of-the-art fitness centers as well as private and group exercise classes. In addition, Maplewood Senior Living works to support a healthy brain in each aspect of senior living. To learn more about our offerings or to schedule a tour, please contact us.