Doing These? 8 Exercise Tips For Your Brain Health

Exercises improves blood flow to the brain. Helps your brain cells grow. Improves your immune system. Has “fasting” like health benefits, and helps improve your mental health.

No doubt about it, physical exercise is a winner for your brain health.

But are there brain protecting benefits and if so what’s the right exercises to help you support brain health for life?  

In this article we cover:

  • What we’ve learned about the brain and how it changes
  • The brain changing benefits of exercises
  • Lesson from 454 beautiful brains
  • Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment, does physical exercise help improve your brain function?
  • 8 exercise tips for your brain health
  • A little bit of ‘Extra Assistance’ is needed to cut your risk of Alzheimer’s (study finds)
  • What you can do for Memory Health For Life

Are You Missing the Brain Health Benefits By Not Exercising Right?

We’ve all seen the commercial  “Compare the Difference” 

It’s superannuation ad that compares two workers super funds.

One worker invests with a super fund the other invests in an “standard” super program. 

The proposed difference between the two is $100,000s across a person’s lifetime.

The same goes for exercise.

Let’s take the scenario of two people and what are the brain health benefits of exercise

  • Person A:  There is the lifepath of a person who exercises.
  • Person B:  On the other side there is the lifepath of the person who doesn’t exercise.

You can’t grow new neurons ( working units). It was an accepted fact that when you became an adult – that was it. 

No more for you.

Well that was the 90s.

Enter the 2000s, evidence grew that, yes – you can grow new neurons. Not only that neurons can adapt and grow new connections. 

In the mid 90s scientists reported that running mice on a wheel led to the birth of new neurons in the hippocampus. This is an important brain structure for memory. 

Hold on. It gets better.

Nowadays, it’s clear exercise improves your brain. 

The SIX  Brain Changing Benefits of Exercises:

  1. Helps create new blood vessels ( referred to as angiogenesis), 
  2. Helps create new neurons (neurogenesis), 
  3. Helps create new synapses (synaptogenesis). This is the connections between neurons, as well as the
  4. Helps produce brain growth factors called neurotrophins. One of the well researched neurotrophins is called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).  Harvard Psychiatrist John J Ratey, MD most notably referred to this as “Miracle Grow” for the brain, or as I call it “Dynamic Lifter”.  It primes the brain for change.
  5. Reduces Inflammation
  6. Lowers your stress hormones. 

So Person B misses out on all these benefits.

Not yet convinced about the cognitive benefits of exercise, then read on.

Does The Exercise for Brain Health Research Show Improved Memory Function? 

A study from Colombia University followed a small group of middle-aged people who had been exercising about an hour a day, four times a week, for three months. 

The study reports that these individuals were able to grow and maintain new neurons in the dentate gyrus ( part of the hippocampus involved in memory and learning ) at a 2-3 times rate that those who didn’t exercise. 

It’s like building new highways between far away cities 2 to 3 times faster.

Lessons From 454 Beautiful Healthy Brains

Physical exercise and activity may be important in reducing dementia risk at any age. 

In this 2019 study researchers followed older adults who completed physical and cognitive tests each year for 20 years and then donated their brains for the study when they died.  

During their life they were given accelerometers which monitored their physical activity day in day out.

Here’s what they found

  • People who moved more scored better on the memory and thinking tests, and every increase in physical activity by one standard deviation was associated with a 31% lower risk of dementia (Mortimer and Stern, 2019)

But what about a person who is living with a neurological condition?

Will Exercise Help If You’re Living With Mild Memory Changes Like Mild Cognitive Impairment?

In another study, comparing people with Mild Cognitive Impairment. One group received a heart healthy diet only, another group of people received “health education” only and lastly a third group who received the same heart healthy diet, health education AND completed aerobic exercise 3 times per week for 45min. 

Compared to diet alone or education alone, it was those who combined exercise and the heart healthy diet improved with changes in executive functions ( skills like planning, problem-solving and multitasking).

There was a noticeable additive benefit of “stacking” these lifestyle changes for your brain health with exercises being on benefit in this study. (Blumental et al, 2019)

Exercise is also critical for people living with a neurological condition

Ok, so the next question is “What Type of Exercise Is Best For Overall Brain Health”

According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. 

Here’s 8 Tips for Choosing The Right Physical Exercise For Your Brain Health

  1. Take care of our body  and heart (physical health) well it’ll also help take care of your cognitive function. We often say: “What’s good for your heart is is also very likely good for your brain.”  In a 2013 study men who practiced certain healthy behaviors were 60% less likely to experience cognitive impairment and dementia as they got older. 
  2. To stay sharp, aerobic exercise is going to help your body and brain BUT
    1. Aerobic exercise has been shown to have “fasting like benefits” and with that there are improved immune functions as well as “cleaning up” dysfunctional cells.
    2. BUT… don’t forget to add intensity. High intensity exercise in fact. 
    3. AND don’t neglect a rich exercise regime of diverse movements and challenges ( see below)
  3. If you like crunching time at the gym alone, opt for circuit workouts, which both quickly spike your heart rate, but also constantly redirect your attention.
  4. Don’t forget all the great incidental exercise you do at home. Sadly, technology can rob you from these vital movement and exercise opportunities. Think online shopping. Well it makes sense to do it with COVID, but that’s easily 3000 steps lost. How are you getting those back? 
  5. Remember that with effort there is rest and sleep is the best “exercise” you can do with your physical exercise program. How many of us think about sleep as an activity or exercise. Lifting it to the same level as exercise will help make sure this is also prioritised in your day. 
  6. What to be in your peak performance for the day, consider exercising in the morning before going tackling your day. It helps kick off the body process that sharpens your attention but also helps buffer against mental stresses.
  7. Regular exercise: Being consistent with your exercise. Sure some days are harder than others but committing to turning up to do one thing, one exercise keeps the wheel moving in the right direction in reducing your risk for a decline in your cognitive function. What’s your exercise routine? Is it needing a mix up? Have you tried Tai Chi, Yoga, Dancing, Weights, Bush Walking, Zoomba?
  8. When looking to change up your exercises regime, look for an activity that incorporates coordination along with aerobic and resistive exercise. David’s conversation with Dr Mel Davis explores how resistance training is associated with cognitive improvements.
    1. BONUS: adding new learning and what we call movement problems – complex movement challenges which is often the missing ingredient in most people’s programs

Exercise won’t make a 77 year old brain be 30, it won’t cure neurodegenerative conditions but it can add improved quality of life and help tackle some of the cognitive challenges that come with complex health situations. 

How To Start An Exercise Program For Brain Health Benefits

If you’ve not exercised for some time, not sure of your fitness level and the concept of building an exercise routine is foreign, be sure to get checked out by your GP first. After that connect with a suitable health professional to help you get all the mental and physical health benefits that exercise can help you with. 

A Little Bit Of ‘Extra Assistance’ Is Needed To Cut Your Risk Of Alzheimer’s (study finds)

At OT Brisbane for the last 6 years David Norris has been teaching and supporting people to reduce their risk for cognitive decline.

Therapy programs are aligned with scientific backed programs such as the groundbreaking ACTIVE and FINGER dementia prevention studies. 

To see the Australian National Universities’ pilot study results isn’t surprising but highly encouraging to have growing Australian evidence also showing that diet, exercise and targeted cognitive exercises can reduce a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease and improve cognitive health in the short term. 

The key finding that stood out is the specialised coaching support to help people achieve these results.

The ANU’s pilot study tracked people aged 65 years or older, and who’d already experienced some decline in their memory. 

Half the group had specialist brain health coaching support and it was these people who demonstrated the most improvement. 

If you’re looking to design a lifestyle program to help you live better with your neurological condition, to reduce your risk for cognitive decline you might be interested in our Memory Health  For Life Program. 

If so, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us at 1300 783 200 or via using the form below.

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The Occupational Therapy Blog is a news and health promotion initiative.  It by no means aims to be a source of medical or therapeutic advice. We enjoy sharing information and will attempt to curate it as best we can.  You’d appreciate we like to lighten our blog articles which often tackles very serious issues. It’s our way of sharing.   The information contained on this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, or intervention.  Always seek the advice of your GP or qualified therapist with any questions you may have regarding your personal situation. Never substitute or delay seeking professional advice because of information you’ve read on this website.

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