The best strategy to maintain both good physical and cognitive health is engaging in regular physical activity. Regular physical activity has many benefits as it helps decrease risk of heart diseases, helps regulate blood pressure, and can also help strengthen your bones! Need more convincing? How about it also helps your brain function as you age.
As we get older it’s no secret that our brain function declines. Our executive functions (mental control and self-regulation) are altered as it becomes harder to remember things; our reaction times decrease and our ability to focus drops. Research has suggested that these age-related brain changes are mainly due to atrophy of the brain and other neurophysiological changes. As a result, there is a decrease in blood flow and function.
Normal cognitive function relies on an optimal level of blood flow to the brain. This blood contains oxygen and other nutrients necessary for optimal brain function. Participating in physical activity is integral in creating nutrient dense blood and helps increase flow to all areas of the brain and body!
It was previously thought that the brain was an unchangeable structure, but this is no longer the case. Studies have shown that exercise promotes neurogenesis – the ability to grow new brain cells, and the adult brain can adapt and change with our lifestyles. Many reviews suggest that maintaining higher levels of aerobic fitness protect the brain against the normal effects of aging. Other studies have also suggested that these changes can be delayed and reduced with regular physical activity. Older adults with greater cardiovascular fitness have been found to suffer significantly less loss of brain matter compared to their lesser fit counterparts.
Fascinated by this, my colleagues and I at Acadia University observed the relationships between cerebral oxygenation (blood flow to the brain), physical fitness and cognition in older adults (ages 61-84 years). It was found that, at baseline, those with higher cardiorespiratory fitness had greater cerebral oxygenation and performed better on cognitive tasks than those who are less fit, regardless of age!
We were so intrigued that we also conducted an exercise program with older adults. Over a period of 18 aerobic exercise sessions, the older adults improved their oxygenated blood flow to the brain and performed better on an executive function task.
So, what does this mean? Exercise isn’t just great for your biceps and looking good on the beach, but it’s great for your brain too. General improvements in fitness can improve your brains function and improve your quality of life. A combination of both an aerobic and resistance training intervention can be very effective on improving brain adaptations pertaining to cognition and oxygenated blood flow.
How do you get started? It can be as simple as taking a walk around the block or doing chair yoga. Any movement is better than none, especially when you’re doing it for your brain! Remember, you should always be safe and consult your healthcare provider and an Exercise Physiologist before starting in any sort of exercise for the first time.