By Dr. Mercola
Your brain can shrink up to 15 percent as you get older, and this size decrease is associated with dementia, poor memory and other mental health issues like depression.
But this shrinkage isn't inevitable. People with "healthy" brains are less likely to experience this loss in brain size, even if they're older.1
What's one of the most important steps you can "take" to keep your brain healthy? Exercise!
Want to Get Smarter? Do This Often...
If you value your brainpower, you'll want to make certain that exercise is a regular part of your life.
Staying active with a variety of activities is best, as each type of exercise may offer unique benefits for your brain health and may even help your brain to grow as you get older, rather than shrink.
For instance, a review of more than 100 studies, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, revealed that both aerobic and resistance training are important for maintaining cognitive and brain health in old age.
The lead researcher, Michelle Voss, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, noted multiple benefits of each.
As reported in the Los Angeles Times:
"Aerobic exercise improves ability to coordinate multiple things, long-term planning and your ability to stay on task for extended periods. Resistance training, which is much less studied than the aerobic side of things, "improves your ability to focus amid distracters."
… Voss explained that MRIs of people in their 60s showed increases in gray and white matter after just six months of exercise. This happens in the prefrontal and temporal lobes, sites that usually diminish with age. With exercise, Voss says, they grow.
Voss also explained that the hippocampus area of the brain, key for memory formation, shrinks 1% to 2% per year in those older than 60, but when people in this age group begin fitness regimens, it grows by 1% to 2% instead. Beyond growing one's brain, exercise improves the ability of different parts of the brain to work together, Voss says."
Do You Want to Avoid Alzheimer's Disease?
According to one of the studies referenced above, moderate exercise can reverse normal brain shrinkage by 2 percent, effectively reversing age-related hippocampus degeneration by one to two years.2 Also according to the study, the people in the control group who didn't exercise saw an average of 1.4 percent decrease in hippocampus size.
Now listen up … when these researchers say the hippocampus region of the brain increases in size as a response to exercise, they are talking about a powerful tool to fight the onset of Alzheimer's disease. The hippocampus, which is considered the memory center of your brain, is the first region of your brain to suffer shrinkage and impairment at the onset of Alzheimer's disease, leading to memory problems and disorientation.
According to the research team:
"We demonstrate that loss of hippocampal volume in late adulthood is not inevitable and can be reversed with moderate-intensity exercise."
Other contributing factors to brain disease caused by the normal aging process may also include a decrease in blood flow to your brain, and the accumulation of environmental toxins in your brain. Exercise can help ameliorate both of these conditions by increasing blood flow to your brain, thereby increasing oxygen supply to your brain and encouraging a more vigorous release and removal of accumulated toxins through better blood circulation. Increased blood flow may also promote delivery of more of the nutrients necessary to keep your brain cells healthy in the first place.
This is Your Brain "on Exercise"
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage. Animal tests have illustrated that during exercise their nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and has a direct benefit on brain functions, including learning. Further, exercise provides protective effects to your brain through:
- The production of nerve-protecting compounds
- Greater blood flow to your brain
- Improved development and survival of neurons
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular diseases
A 2010 study on primates published in the journal Neuroscience also revealed that regular exercise not only improved blood flow to the brain, but also helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys -- a benefit the researchers believe would hold true for people as well.3
Exercise Important for Kids' Brains Too
Many people don't think about their brain function until they start to lose it, i.e. when they begin to feel the hands of time start ticking away. But that is not to say that only those who are in their golden years can benefit. An extensive review of 14 studies, ranging in size from as few as 50 participants to as many as 12,000, demonstrated that the more physically active schoolchildren are, the better they do academically.4
One test program not too far from our Chicago-area office at Naperville Central High School in Illinois illustrated this point in a powerful way two years ago. Students participated in a dynamic morning exercise program at the beginning of the day, and had access to exercise bikes and balls throughout the day in their classrooms. The results were astounding. Those who participated nearly doubled their reading scores, and their math scores increased 20-fold!5
Research has also shown that after 30 minutes on the treadmill, students solve problems up to 10 percent more effectively. So it's important that you encourage your child to stay active after school and on weekends in order to reap the wonderful brain-boosting benefits that exercise has to offer. Even better, be a positive role model and stay active together as a family.
You Can Still Have a Life if You Exercise…
Many people sabotage their exercise efforts before they even begin because they tell themselves they're too busy. But here's the thing, you don't have to devote hours every day to stay in shape and get the health benefits exercise has to offer.
One of the best exercises available -- Peak Fitness -- takes just 20 minutes to complete. This is because it's a high-intensity exercise, alternating short bursts of activity with periods of rest in between, which gives you phenomenal results in a fraction of the time compared to traditional cardio workouts. There are no rules for the specific manner in which this is achieved—you could do this running in the backyard, or using a treadmill, elliptical machine, or recumbent bike – or you could do it bicycling outdoors. Here are the core principles:
- Warm up for three minutes
- Then, go all out, as hard as you can for 30 seconds
- Recover at a moderate pace for 90 seconds
- Repeat 7 more times, for a total of 8 repetitions
- Cool down for a few minutes afterwards by cutting down your intensity by 50-80 percent
- For more in-depth information about Peak Fitness, please review this previous article.
Peak Fitness should only be done a few times a week. So one day you might do a Peak Fitness interval type workout, the next day you might spend 45 minutes going through a strength-training routine. The next, you pop in a Pilates video before your morning shower, and then over the weekend maybe you don another Peak Fitness work out and head outside hiking with the kids or riding bikes around your neighborhood.
Your exercise program can and should conform to your lifestyle, and once you develop a solid routine, you'll find you look forward to and enjoy your exercise sessions all while reaping their massive rewards to your brain, and your overall, health. You simply won't want to stop as you know how good you feel when you exercise regularly. That my friends, is one of the best types of positive reinforcement known to man.