By Dr. Mercola
The next time you work out, take a moment to think about all of the wonderful ways it will benefit your body. And I'm not only talking about your muscles or your six-pack abs… I'm referring to your brain.
Exercise is emerging as a key player in brain health at various stages of life and has been shown to prevent cognitive decline, moderate brain damage caused by drinking and even lower your risk of brain diseases like Alzheimer's. Now, researchers have uncovered yet another brain benefit of exercise – a reduced risk of epilepsy.
Vigorous Exercise May Reduce Epilepsy Risk by Up to 80 Percent
In a study involving more than 1.1 million men who were followed for an average of 25 years, those who had a high level of fitness when they were young were 79 percent less likely to develop epilepsy later in life compared to those with low fitness levels.1
Compared to young men with average fitness levels, the high-fitness group was still 36 percent less likely to develop epilepsy. This is the first study in humans to reveal that exercise may impact epilepsy risk. One of the study's researchers noted:2
"Exercise may affect epilepsy risk in two ways. It may protect the brain and create stronger brain reserve, or it may simply be that people who are fit early in life tend to also be fit later in life, which in turn affects disease risk."
Exercise May Reduce Seizure Frequency in People with Epilepsy
Epilepsy is a neurological disorder involving disturbed nerve cell activity in your brain. This results in seizures that may include a staring spell, confusion, uncontrollable jerking movements and loss of consciousness or awareness. Obviously, this presents risks of falls and injuries that may occur if you have a seizure while driving or even exercising.
For this reason, people with epilepsy have previously been discouraged from participating in physical activity, and this stigma remains today even though medical recommendations have long since changed.
Now, exercise is highly recommended for people with epilepsy, for starters because it helps to reduce stress levels, which can sometimes trigger seizures. In fact, physical activity has been shown to decrease seizure frequency,3 as well as lead to improved cardiovascular and psychological health in people with epilepsy.4
Tips for Exercising if You Have Seizures
If you have epilepsy, make sure you exercise with a buddy or a personal trainer who knows what to do if you have a seizure. A medical alert bracelet can also be worn.
Try to exercise in a safe area, such as a grassy field or on a gym mat, and wear elbow and knee pads. If you'll be swimming, be sure you wear a life vest and never go swimming alone (a strong swimmer should be with you at all times in case you need help).
If you'll be exercising on a bicycle, stay away from busy streets (and wear a helmet)… likewise if you'll be hiking -- stick to simpler trails, not those with steep drop-offs or cliffs. If you have epilepsy, you'll need to take special care during activities that pose a risk of a blow to your head, such as football; if you do engage in such sports be sure to wear a helmet.
Generally speaking, however, you can exercise normally if you have epilepsy, but do use commonsense precautions – avoid getting over-tired or overheated, and avoid exercising when it's very hot. As an aside, if you have epilepsy, be sure to get your vitamin D levels checked. When epileptic patients improved their vitamin D levels, their seizures were reduced by an average of 40 percent in one study.5
What Else Can Exercise Do for Your Brain?
Along with potentially reducing your risk for epilepsy quite significantly, scientific evidence shows that physical exercise helps you build a brain that not only resists shrinkage, but also increases cognitive abilities.6 In one review of more than 100 studies, both aerobic and resistance training were found to be important for maintaining cognitive and brain health in old age.7 Moderate exercise may even reverse normal brain shrinkage by 2 percent, effectively reversing age-related hippocampus degeneration, which is associated with dementia and poor memory, by one to two years.8
Not to mention, 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.
You've Got to Move It… Or You Might Lose It
If you work out religiously for three months, then suddenly stop for an extended period, your muscle tone will definitely suffer. This is one of the more obvious examples that your body is designed for regular exercise, not sporadic or infrequent activity.
Likewise, research suggests that the brain benefits of exercise also quickly fade if your exercise program stops. The silver lining is that the opposite also appears to hold true. While the benefits of exercise might fade fast, they can also be achieved relatively quickly.
Exercising – even briefly – can change your DNA in a way that readies your body for increased muscle strength and fat burning. It also boosts your natural human growth hormone (HGH) production, which is important for maintaining muscle mass as you age. If you're approaching middle-age or beyond, you might be thinking that it's too late for you to get in shape, but this is not the case. Remember, you are never too old to start exercising and start reaping the mental and physical benefits that physical activity has to offer.
What to Do If You Have Seizures and Exercise Isn't Helping
If you have epilepsy and are unable to control the seizures, or have refractory epilepsy – or know someone who is affected – please view the video above, which is my interview with Dr. Thomas Seyfried about the ketogenic diet. The ketogenic diet has been used for managing seizures for quite some time, and is now recognized as an important component for the management of refractory seizures in children. A ketogenic diet calls for eliminating all but non-starchy vegetable carbohydrates, and replacing them with healthy fats and high-quality protein.
Eating this way will help you convert from carb-burning mode to fat burning, as well, so it provides many benefits beyond seizure control. According to Dr. Seyfried, the mechanism by which the ketogenic diet manages seizures is not clear, but the results speak for themselves. You can learn more about the ketogenic diet here.
Want to Boost Your Brainpower? Try This Exercise 'Prescription'
The more active you stay, the better your brain (and overall health) is likely to be. This includes not only specifically engaging in exercise and other physically demanding activities but also making an effort to sit less. To get all the benefits exercise has to offer, you'll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a variety of exercises. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program:
- High-Intensity Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods. The HIIT approach I personally prefer and recommend is the Peak Fitness method of 30 seconds of maximum effort followed by 90 seconds of recuperation. You can see a demonstration of Peak Fitness in the video I did.
- Strength Training: If you want, you can increase the intensity by slowing it down. 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. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of HIIT, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
- 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, yoga and Foundation Training are great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is Active Isolated Stretching (AIS) developed by Aaron Mattes. With AIS, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
- Non-Exercise Activity: One of the newest recommendations I have is based on information from NASA scientist Dr. Joan Vernikos, who I recently interviewed: simply set a timer when you are sitting and stand up every 10 minutes. I even modify this further by doing jump squats at times in addition to standing up. This will help counteract the dangerous consequences of excessive sitting.
Going to the gym a few times a week for an hour simply isn't going to counteract hours upon hours of chronic uninterrupted sitting, which essentially mimics a microgravity situation, i.e. you're not exerting your body against gravity. Only frequent non-exercise movement will do that. The key point is to move and shift position often, when you're sitting down. Meaning, you want to interrupt your sitting as often as possible.