On Your Health

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Exercise and Your Memory

There are many good reasons to get regular exercise. Physical activity, whether mellow or intense, is a proven mood booster. It can help us maintain a healthy weight, keep our blood pressure in check, reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, reduce stress and strengthen muscles and bones. Regular sweat sessions (or post-dinner strolls) are also, it turns out, possibly quite a boost for cognitive function, now and in the future.

When we exercise, our heart rate increases and that sends more oxygen to the brain. Have you ever noticed yourself feeling clearer and sharper after a good brisk walk? That’s because exercising your body and your brain is one and the same.

What are the benefits of exercising?

In the immediate term, here are a few specific benefits you might notice right away when you exercise.

Improved concentration and focus. Studies have shown that even a single workout can help you improve your ability to focus. It’s especially noticeable if your workout gets your heart rate up – try jumping rope, a brisk walk or run, cycling, swimming or banging a tennis ball against the garage door. After half an hour of exercise, you’ll likely notice a boost in your ability to focus and it can last two hours or more.  

Better reaction times. It’s important to know that you can strengthen and improve your reaction time, which will help you now and in the future. It’s natural for our reaction time to slow down as we age, usually due to reduced or impaired cognitive function. Healthy, quick reaction times help us with day-to-day tasks like walking, cooking, driving or other mundane chores. In a more extreme example, let’s say you feel yourself start to slip on an icy sidewalk. Reacting quickly could mean the difference between catching your balance or falling and conking your head. Exercise gives you a short-term and long-term boost in reaction times, especially exercises like agility drills or team sports.

New brain cells. Scientists have found that exercise promotes the formation of new brain cells, AKA neurogenesis. This is critical to cognitive function.

That’s reason enough to lace up your walking shoes, but there’s more! According to the NIH, “A rapidly growing literature strongly suggests that exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, may attenuate cognitive impairment and reduce dementia risk.”

While it’s true that multiple factors determine who among us will suffer from memory loss or dementia, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll stave it off, multiple studies indicate that exercise may help in a very specific way.

The region of the brain involved with memory formation, the hippocampus, shrinks as we age. It’s a normal part of the aging process, which causes (or at least contributes to) increased risk of dementia, forgetfulness or memory loss. We’ve known for years that maintaining a level of physical fitness is associated with better cognitive ability and increased hippocampus size, but the NIH reports that until recently it was unclear whether exercise or increased fitness would help people who, as a result of aging, had already experienced a loss in hippocampus size.

A group of researchers randomly divided 120 older, sedentary adults (with no dementia) into two groups. One group was asked to do some stretching and resistance training. The other group was asked to spend 40 minute, three days a week, walking around a track. A year later, MRIs were performed on both groups and the results were compelling.

The participants who did stretching and resistance exercise experiences a decrease in hippocampus size averaging about 1.4 percent. On the other hand, those who walked for 40 minutes, three days a week, not only maintained their hippocampus sizes, but they also experienced an average increase in volume of 2 percent. The study also measured levels of a molecule known to be a factor in memory and learning (brain-derived neurotropic factor or BDNF) and found that increased hippocampus volume also meant increased amounts of BDNF.

Very good news! We can interpret these results to mean, or at least strongly suggest, that while a shrinking hippocampus in later life is inevitable, we can slow or even pause the shrinkage with regular, moderate exercise for as little as a year. 

Do you like the idea of becoming more active? Unsure how to start?

Here are some ideas to ease you into getting a move on:

Do what you enjoy. Here’s a little common sense: If you hate jogging, odds are good you won’t jog consistently. If you love pickleball, say, or a nice walk, do those instead. Exercise is only good for you if you actually do it. Plus, shouldn’t we lean into the things that make us smile whenever possible?

Try Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a type of moving meditation known for decreasing stress and anxiety while increasing flexibility and balance. It’s an ancient Chinese form of exercise made up of a series of movements performed with focus, slowly. Deep, intentional breathing is part of the package and one pose flows elegantly into the next, so you’re always in motion. Many senior centers and gyms offer Tai Chi classes; it’s also available online or on DVDs.

Don’t do it all at once. If you want to walk for 40 minutes, say, you can break it into more manageable (and less intimidating) chunks. Walk for 15 minutes in the morning, take a ten-minute stroll mid-day, and enjoy a 15-minute walk after dinner. Or start with five-minutes of walking three times a day and work your way up. Remember, nobody is perfect and more movement is always better than less.

Go easy on your back. If you’ve got back issues, consider swimming laps, riding a recumbent bike or using a rowing machine with light resistance. Be sure your form is correct, and you’ll be surprised how much fun a good sweat session can be.

Join a group. Exercising and socializing go together like peas and carrots. In addition to being more fun, exercising with a group or fitness partner can offer motivation, accountability, social connection and  - especially important – an extra level of safety for adults who may benefit from more supervision while exercising. Silver Sneakers is a great option – more than 60 insurance plans provide Silver Sneakers benefits in the form of free access to gym memberships, fitness classes and community events. 


For more health and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.


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