How Exercise Improves Cognitive Health

    The benefits of exercise like overall sense of wellbeing are clear. However, much remains unclear when it comes to the impact of exercise on cognitive health. According to neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD., “We know that physical exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, is very beneficial for maintaining brain health, even in people who are at risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD).” 

    In a recent study conducted on 454 older adults who underwent yearly physical exams and cognitive tests for 20 years, participants were given accelerometers to track their daily physical activities. What scientists found was that the more they moved, the higher they scored on memory and thinking tests. Additionally, each increase in physical activity by one standard deviation shows an association with a 31% lower risk of dementia.

    An additional study demonstrated similar results. In this study, 160 sedentary older people with mild cognitive impairment were asked to either perform aerobic exercise (three times a week for 45 minutes per session), combine aerobic exercise with the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, receive health education, or eat a heart-healthy DASH diet. What researchers found was that the DASH diet and health education group on their own were not enough to improve critical thinking, memory and other executive functions. On the other hand, the group who combined exercise with the DASH diet, experienced a marked increase in executive functions.

    How Can Exercise Improve Cognitive Health? 

    Physical activity works to benefits the brain in a number of ways, including:

    • Improving blood flow to the brain
    • Reducing inflammation
    • Lowering levels of stress hormones

    Exercise also significantly improves the physical benefits of the brain by increasing the thickness of the cerebral cortex, improving the integrity of white matter, promoting neuroplasticity (i.e., forming of new neural connections throughout one’s life) and leveraging the nerve fibers that connect areas of the brain’s nerve-cell-rich gray matter. 

    Meeting The Exercise Requirements To Improve Cognitive Health

    According to Dr. Bonner-Jackson, “There are a lot of potential mechanisms of exercise that may be combined to benefit brain health. Even for people who are at risk of the development of Alzheimer’s or other dementias, it can stave off decline in some cases for many years and help people function better.”

    The exciting part is that there is no need to overwork yourself to achieve brain health requirements. According to a recent study, researchers found that even light-intensity physical activity such as achieving 7,500 steps or more daily was significant in improving total brain volume and was equivalent to approximately 1.4 to 2.2 years less in brain aging.

    Mental Health Activities

    Dr. Bonner-Jackson advises, “Overall, your body and mind have a connection, so if you’re staying physically, mentally and socially active and treating your body right, you can make a world of difference.”

    Below is a breakdown of miscellaneous activities to incorporate into day-to-day routine to improve overall cognitive-health outcomes:

    • Work towards hitting a goal of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. walking, jogging, biking or swimming) a week
    • Try new, mentally stimulating activities (e.g. knitting, gardening, mastering a new language, or solving puzzles)
    • Stay socially engaged and avoid isolation (e.g., schedule regular get-together time with friends and family; join a social organization or club)
    • Enroll in continuing education courses

    Concluding Thoughts

    Physical activity and cognitive health work hand-in-hand. Challenge your brain and avoid onset of depression by taking steps to improve brain function on a daily basis.

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