“You are what you eat!” I’ve heard that adage throughout my life. But here’s a new one to add to your affirmations – “Your brain health is based on your exercise routine.”
Sounds rather crazy, doesn’t it? However, some preliminary findings from three studies presented at the Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference recently seem to bear this statement out. Admittedly, these studies are all small and are considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, I believe that they provide some interesting points for people like me who have seen family members succumb to this terrible disease and who want to be proactive in trying to avoid the same fate. So here are two big lessons that I’m going to embrace based on this research.
Lesson 1: Exercise may even be better for brain health than attending classes.
A study out of Japan separated 47 older adults who had mild memory impairment into two groups. One group was assigned to do 90 minutes of supervised exercise that included strength training, aerobics and balance exercises twice a week for a year. The other study participants took part in a few sessions on the topic of health education. After a year, the researchers assessed the all participants’ mental ability. They found that while both groups exhibited memory improvements, the participants in the group that exercised performed better on assessments for memory and ability to use language than the group involved in the health education sessions.
Now that’s not to say that we shouldn’t embrace life-long learning as a way to exercise our gray matter. Instead, I’d suggest that we mix both regular learning and regular exercise as a way to have a healthy brain.
Lesson 2: Different types of exercise may benefit different parts of the brain.
A study conducted by researchers from three American universities involved 120 sedentary older adults who did not have dementia. The researchers divided the participants into two groups. One group was assigned to do stretching and toning exercise. The other group was asked to walk 30-45 minutes three times a week in order to get aerobic exercise.
At the end of a year, the researchers conducted MRI scans to see if there were any changes in the participants’ brains. They found that the hippocampus region of the brain, which is responsible for memory, increased by 2 percent in the group that walked whereas this region of the brain declined by 1.5 percent in the participants who took part in the stretching group.
The researchers also measured the amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the blood. This factor, which is important in learning, memory and other brain functions, was found to increase in the people who had greater increases in the size of their hippocampus.
However, if you think that this research means that you should only do aerobics, think again. That’s because the assessments also determined that both groups of participants performed better on thinking and memory tests after doing their assigned exercises for a year. These findings have led the researchers to hypothesize that different types of exercise may boost different aspects of brain health.