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Growing Evidence Links Exercise and Mental Acuity

June 12, 2010 | 51,186 views
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exerciseCan exercise help keep your mind sharp? Researchers increasingly say the answer is yes.

John J. Ratey, a psychiatrist who wrote the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, says that there is overwhelming evidence that exercise produces large cognitive gains and helps fight dementia.

The Washington Post advises:

“...while the volume of that research grows, the safest course of action for both body and mind appears to be to keep our weight down, follow a regular course of moderate to intense exercise, and stick with it.”

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Today, Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 50 percent to 70 percent of all dementia cases, and is on the rise. In many ways, the rise of Alzheimer’s in the aging population is very similar to the rise of autism in children.

The latest 2009 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report estimates that by 2030 nearly 8 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s.

While increasing age is the greatest risk factor for this disease, there are also other risk factors that you have greater control over, such as diabetes. Diabetics have up to a 65 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

However, it is important to understand that dementia (including Alzheimer’s disease) is not a “normal” part of aging. And you do not have to accept reduced mental acuity as being inevitable.

You CAN significantly reduce your risk by making positive lifestyle changes. In fact, many of the same lifestyle changes that will lower your risk of diabetes will also improve your chances of never developing Alzheimer’s.

Most of the healthy, bright and mentally astute 80 and 90-year olds out there have probably been leading a healthy lifestyle for most of their lives, and are reaping the benefits as a result.

It’s not about good fortune. It’s about personal choices.

Leading a healthy life is one of the best ways to keep your mind intact, no matter what your age. And not surprisingly, what’s good for your brain is also good for your heart, and vice versa.

How Does Exercise Protect Your Brain?

Although the mind-body research into the benefits of exercise against dementia may still be in its infancy, there is compelling evidence that regular exercise promotes essential cell and tissue repair mechanisms, including growth of new brain cells.

Physical exercise may also protect against mild cognitive impairment by:

  • Promoting production of nerve-protecting compounds
  • Increasing blood flow to your brain
  • Improving development and survival of neurons
  • Decreasing your risk of heart and blood vessel diseases that can impact brain function

In essence, exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing your nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage.

Previous research has also shown that a regular exercise program can slow the development of Alzheimer's disease by altering the way damaging proteins reside in your brain.

According to John J. Ratey, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, you can easily “push back cognitive decline by anywhere from 10 to 15 years" by incorporating an exercise regimen three to four times a week – even if you begin during middle age, and exercise at a moderate rate.

The Washington Post writes:

“In his book, Ratey notes research that MRI scans of the brains of sedentary people who suddenly improve their fitness show increased volume in the hippocampus and frontal and temporal lobes, regions of the brain associated with cognitive functioning. The hippocampus in particular is associated with memory and learning.

"The major implication is that exercise not only keeps the brain from rotting, but it also reverses the cell deterioration associated with aging," Ratey wrote.”

So forget about getting forgetful with age. It doesn’t have to happen to you.

In addition to exercise -- which I encourage everyone to engage in, no matter what your age is, or what future health concerns or worries you may have -- there are also other simple lifestyle strategies that can have a profound impact on your quality of life.

But before I go into those, here’s a quick review of the four principles you’ll want to keep in mind when devising your exercise routine.

Four Principles of Exercise

Your body is an efficient machine, and if you do the same type of exercise day after day, you’ll become quite good at it. However, when exercise becomes easy to complete, it’s a sign you need to work a little harder and give your body a new challenge.

So when you’re planning your exercise routine, make sure to incorporate the following types of exercise:

  1. Aerobic: Jogging, using an elliptical machine, and walking fast are all examples of aerobic exercise. As you get your heart pumping, the amount of oxygen in your blood improves, and endorphins, which act as natural painkillers, increase.

    Meanwhile, aerobic exercise activates your immune system, helps your heart pump blood more efficiently, and increases your stamina over time.

  2. Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is also known as sprint cardio. Research shows that the BEST way to condition your heart and burn fat is NOT to jog or walk steadily for an hour. Instead, it’s to alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.

    I have been doing these exercises for the past several months and actually stopped doing all regular cardio training two months ago. Amazingly, my body fat went down 5 percent and I look and feel much better, with 1/3 of the time investment.

    This type of exercise, also known as interval training, or burst type training, can dramatically improve your cardiovascular fitness and fat-burning capabilities.

    Another major benefit of this approach is that it radically decreases the amount of time you spend exercising, while giving you even more benefits. For example, intermittent sprinting produces high levels of chemical compounds called catecholamines, which allow more fat to be burned from under your skin within the exercising muscles.

    The resulting increase in fat oxidation increases weight loss. So, short bursts of activity done at a very high intensity can help you reach your optimal weight and level of fitness, in a shorter amount of time

  3. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program.

    You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.

  4. Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.

    Exercise programs like pilates and yoga are great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.

    Focusing on your breath and mindfulness along with increasing your flexibility is an important element of total fitness.

  5. Stretching: My favorite types of stretches are active isolated stretching developed by Aaron Mattes.

A Heart- and Brain-Healthy Lifestyle 

Start taking action to preserve your brain function now by implementing the strategies detailed in the guide below.  

These strategies can also radically reduce your risk of all sorts of chronic diseases, so know that if you make the effort to enact these changes you will reap multiple health- and emotional benefits -- even as you get older.

  1. Optimize your vitamin D levels through safe sun exposure, a safe tanning bed and/or vitamin D supplements.
  2. Eat a nutritious diet with plenty of raw fresh vegetables based on your nutritional type, and pay special attention to avoiding sugar.
  3. Eat plenty of high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fats. Fifty percent of your brain is an omega-3 fat called DHA. My favorite source of this essential fat is krill oil, and because it is so highly absorbed you need far less of it than fish oil. Additionally, it is loaded with beneficial antioxidants and is clearly the most sustainable source of animal-based omega-3 on the planet. Avoid most fish, because although it is high in omega-3, it is often contaminated with toxic mercury.
  4. Avoid toxins, especially mercury, aluminum and fluoride. Dental amalgam fillings are one of the major sources of mercury, however you should be healthy prior to having them removed. Once you have adjusted to following the diet described in my nutrition plan, you can follow the mercury detox protocol and then find a qualified biological dentist to have your amalgams removed.

    (Be sure to only use a high-quality biologically trained dentist who is familiar with the removal of amalgam fillings or your health could get ruined.)

    Aluminum is found in items such as antiperspirants and aluminum cookware, which should also be avoided.

    Avoid flu vaccinations as well, as they contain both mercury and aluminum!

    Fluoride, meanwhile, is another powerful neurotoxin. The most common sources would be in your water and toothpaste. But it is also a part of some antibiotics (like Cipro), soy protein, and pesticides, so seek to have as much of your food organically grown as possible, and filter your tap water with a reverse osmosis filter to eliminate the fluoride.

  5. Keep your fasting insulin levels below three. There is no question that insulin resistance is one of the most pervasive influences on brain damage, as it contributes massively to inflammation, which will prematurely degenerate your brain.
  6. Exercise regularly, for all the benefits previously mentioned above.
  7. Eliminate all processed foods and sugars, particularly fructose. This includes refraining from eating too many fruits, if you normally eat a lot of them. If you consume more than 25 grams a day of fructose you can damage your cells by creating insulin and leptin resistance and raising your uric acid levels.

    Berries tend to be lower in fructose, and wild blueberries, for example, are high in anthocyanin and antioxidants, and are well-known for being beneficial against Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseses.

  8. Challenge your mind daily. Mental stimulation, such as traveling, learning to play an instrument or doing crossword puzzles, is associated with a decreased risk of Alzheimer's. Researchers suspect that mental challenge helps to build up your brain, making it less susceptible to the lesions associated with Alzheimer's disease.
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