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Studies have shown that an estimated 40% of people ages 65 and older experience a degree of age-related cognitive decline. That equates to approximately 21 million in the U.S. alone. According to research, one of the best ways to avoid memory loss and cognitive aging is to exercise.
Now, that may be news to you, or to others. After all, we’re more used to hearing that having a daily exercise regimen is good for our physical health. Little did we know, exercise also offers a ton of cognitive benefits that boosts brain health. Find out exactly how exercise helps improve brain health and what brain exercises you can do to get the greatest benefits.
Can Exercise Enhance Both Cognitive Health and Physical Health?
Oftentimes, we think that exercise is something that we should do purely for our physical health. With scientists continuing to learn about health and wellness, it’s not a wonder that they also uncovered overwhelming evidence that regular physical exercise is also essential to maintaining cognitive health. Neuroscientist Ebony Glover, Ph.D., stated that physical exercise can lead to improved cognitive performance through a process called neurogenesis.
Neurotrophins are proteins that act as growth factors within our central and peripheral nervous systems to regulate cell maintenance and function. Neurotrophins are important in promoting new cell growth in the brain. Exercise can generate and protect new neurons, increasing the volume of brain structures and leading to an overall improved cognitive performance and health in general.
There’s more scientific data that can support the link between exercise and brain health. According to research done on mice in 2013, exercise can increase neurogenesis, or the formation of new brain cells, in the brain’s hippocampus. While that study was done on mice, the same thing still rings true for humans when talking about exercise and better brain health.
A study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia found that older adults who remain active have higher levels of brain proteins which enhance connections between neurons, improving memory and boosting cognitive functions.
In a 2019 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers followed nearly 200,000 participants aged 60 and older who did not have any cognitive impairment or dementia when they first joined the study. The participants were also tracked for eight years on factors such as current smoking status, regular physical activity, healthy diet, and moderate alcohol consumption. The researchers found that a healthy lifestyle was associated with lower dementia risk among the participants, regardless of genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.
Moreover, a study published in 2013 examined healthy behaviors in nearly 2,300 men over the course of thirty years. The researchers looked at the behaviors and cognitive abilities beginning in their middle age and tracked them throughout old age. Results showed that men who practiced a healthy lifestyle were found 60% less likely to experience cognitive impairment and dementia as they age.
The healthy lifestyle and behaviors of the men included not smoking, having a healthy BMI, consuming a lot of fruits and vegetables, consuming a low to moderate amount of alcohol, and of course, having a regular exercise routine.
Regular physical exercise may also reduce any age-related inflammation that impacts the brain. Inflammation is linked to other chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease and may be linked to cognitive decline as well. According to Gary Small, M. D., Chair of Psychiatry at the Hackensack University Medical Center stated, “Patients ask me all the time whether it’s better for their brain to do a crossword puzzle or jog around the block. The evidence for exercise is more compelling.”
How Much Exercise Does One Need to Improve Cognitive Function?
We’ve now seen how exercise can improve brain function alongside physical health. You may now be wondering, how much exercise does one actually need to improve cognition? The answer is pretty simple: having a long-term and consistent exercise regimen portioned out in the right amount on a weekly basis can help a lot.
The type of exercise and intensity largely depends on the individual; what exercise works for others may not be the same for you. What’s important here is to be consistent in your exercise routine for you to reap benefits. Ebony Glover, Ph. D., a neuroscientist, stated that consistency is the key no matter what program you choose to implement.
She says, “At least 6 to 12 months of exercise is necessary to detect changes in cognitive functioning. While changes in the brain have been observed after shorter durations of exercise, these changes don’t necessarily translate to improved cognitive functioning right away. It takes consistency over time.”
Additionally, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends older adults do some form of resistance training at least twice a week. By starting out with lower resistance levels and adjusting to higher levels over time, one can improve endurance and strength. The phrase “brisk is better for the brain,” is a great way to remember the basic intensity you need to feel to improve brain function. By adjusting your intensity from light to moderate or brisk as you go along your exercise journey, the better results you’ll achieve.
The Best Exercises for Brain Health
Older adults aren’t the only ones who should exercise to enhance cognitive function. People of all ages can benefit from exercises, both physical and mental kind! Increase your brain activity by giving these exercises a try!
Do take note that your mileage may vary with these exercises; what works for others may not work for you. Always seek medical advice from a professional to know which one may be best for you.
Exercise can boost memory and thinking skills both directly and indirectly. It stimulates physiological changes such as insulin resistance and inflammation, and it also encourages the production of growth factors in the body. Exercising can also improve mood and enhance sleep, as well as reduce stress and anxiety.
When one is frequently stressed and lacks sleep, they can cause or contribute to cognitive impairment. Whether you’re young or older in age, these exercises are something that you should start doing.
Regular aerobic exercise not only boosts blood flow to the brain but also boosts the size of the hippocampus which is the part of the brain that’s responsible for verbal memory and learning. A 2017 study with 2,000 participants aged 60 and older found that the more active they were, the larger the hippocampus was.
The protective effects of exercise also displayed high results in participants over the age of 75. It’s definitely never too late to take up a daily exercise routine to help enhance cognitive function.
A study published in the journal NeuroImage: Clinical in 2020 found that about six months of strength training can help counter the shrinkage of the hippocampus in older adults. Another study found that pumping iron through resistance training produced the best results for working memory and other cognition measurements. Lifting weights were also found to exercise the neural circuits in the brain.
Tai Chi not only reduces stress but it helps boost memory too. Research done by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggested that tai chi can help improve reasoning, planning, and problem-solving, and decrease the rate of memory loss among adults.
This is because tai chi is a form of exercise that combines mental focus with movement. In other words, tai chi helps the brain think about what comes next while allowing the body to stay active.
A low-intensity mind-body exercise, yoga can enhance your brain function by helping regulate your mood and stress levels. It differs from other forms of strengthening exercises as yoga promotes correct breathing habits which relax the body significantly, improving your brain health.
Also known as brain training, a brain exercise is any activity that engages your cognitive skills. These mentally-stimulating activities are designed to challenge your memory, focus, and problem-solving skills. Brain exercises also allow you to constantly learn and get better.
The key is to do brain exercises that are difficult but not too difficult; an optimal amount of challenge can help maintain a healthy mind. If there’s too much, you will get stressed and stress can damage your cognitive ability. If there’s little to no challenge, there may not be any cognitive improvements. Try doing any of these brain exercises now!
Solving a jigsaw puzzle taps multiple cognitive abilities, making it a potential protective factor for visuospatial cognitive aging. In simpler terms, when you put a jigsaw puzzle together, you have to look at different pieces and figure out where they fit within the larger picture. This challenges and exercises the brain, helping improve cognitive function.
Similar to jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles challenge the brain and enhance your life in a lot of ways. Your thinking skills will improve, leading to a greater brain volume in several regions of the brain.
Chess and other cognitive leisure activities may improve memory, executive function, and information processing. This is because you’ll have to remember what your opponent has played, develop your own strategy, and keep your mind engaged in the complex point system for gains and losses.
If you don’t know how to play checkers, maybe it’s time to start learning now. According to a 2015 study, there is a connection between regularly participating in checkers or other cognitively-stimulating games and larger brain volume. People who played checkers and who were at risk of Alzheimer’s disease showed improved markers in their brain health.
Learn a Musical Instrument
Learning a musical instrument exercises parts of the brain that are responsible for coordination. A 2014 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society showed that playing a musical instrument may benefit cognitive development in a young brain. For older adults, learning an instrument may help protect against cognitive impairment.
Build Your Vocabulary
Aside from broadening your knowledge, having a rich vocabulary can also stimulate your brain. Research shows that many parts of the brain are involved in vocabulary tasks, particularly the areas responsible for visual and auditory processing.
A simple way to increase your vocabulary and enhance your working memory is to read a book or watch TV and note down any words that are unfamiliar. You can then use a dictionary to look up the meaning of the word and think up ways to use it in a sentence.
Learn New Skills
From a multisensory perspective, learning new skills can engage your brain in numerous ways. Research has shown that learning new skills opens up new neural pathways in the brain, helping enhance both verbal memory and visual-spatial memory.
Additionally, from a 2014 study, older adults who learned cognitively demanding skills such as quilting or photography were found to have an enhanced memory function.
There’s no denying that exercise brings a ton of cognitive benefits. To have a sound and healthy brain, you should begin doing some brain training and start increasing your physical activity as well! It is never too late to start.
You don’t have to suddenly transform yourself into a gym rat. While greater physical activity is associated with more synaptic protein levels in brain tissue, science has also shown us that every movement counts when it comes to our brain health.
If you feel any discomfort doing any exercise, it’s best to stop and seek a medical professional for medical advice.