Why keeping physically active helps keeps the brain active and healthy
Although the link between exercise and heart health is well-known, researchers are more recently starting to piece together what happens to our most complex organ – the brain – when we work up a sweat.
Through a series of studies, scientists started noticing that older people who take up regular exercise had improved hand-eye coordination and performed better on reaction-time tests over their sedentary counterparts.
It was long after improvements to medical technology instruments provided deeper studies and insights to the idea that physical exercise improved not only our bodies, but also our brain function, at any age.
Physical activity is good for every organ in your body
Professor Anthony Hannan, head of the Neural Plasticity Laboratory at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, says that physical activity has the ability to strengthen the connection between neurons, which help transmit messages around our mind and body. “Physical activity is good for every organ in your body. Your brain doesn’t sit up there in your skull in an ivory tower; it’s in constant bi-directional talk across your body with all the other systems,” he explains.”
Exercise boosts neurogenesis, which is the birth of new neurons in the adult brain… it can also impact on synaptic plasticity, which is basically the ‘use it or lose it’ concept.
“Most changes occur overtime, and research shows individuals who are active often and for longer periods, usually with cardio, tend to perform better in brain tests,” says Professor Hannan.
Exercise helping combat early stages of Huntington’s disease
A decade ago, Professor Hannan and his team at The Florey were the first to show that long-term voluntary activity, where mice could freely exercise on the wheel at any time, reduced the late onset of Huntington’s disease — which is an inherited neurological condition that causes damage to the brain. They were also able to show that regular exercise reduces depression — the most common psychiatric symptom of Huntington’s disease.
According to Professor Hannan, “combining physical activity with our unique genetic code is one way of controlling our risk of developing specific diseases such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and other age-related brain disorders.”
Here are some other science-backed benefits from exercise contributing to our body and mind.
1. Exercise boosts your brain power
Regular exercise boosts memory, improves cognitive performance and physically expands the brain to make room for new connections between neurons. One of the largest longitudinal studies to prove this was the CARDIA study, which found that individuals who maintained higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness between their mid 20s and early 50s scored higher on the verbal memory and psychomotor tests, compared to the lower level fitness groups.
2. Reduces toxic build-up in the brain
The amino acid glutamate is responsible for sending signals between the cells in our brain. But in some people, especially those with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)), epilepsy or Huntington’s Disease; glutamate is overproduced, causing blockages that may lead to toxicity in the brain. A 2016 study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism found that exercise directs glutamate into “spring clean” mode by sweeping out excess amounts of the amino acid, in turn reducing the severity of the disease.
3. Improves mood, reduces anxiety and helps tackle stress
Physical activity boosts the neurotransmitter pathways in our brains, which helps to regulate our emotional health. Regular physical activity, or even as simple as swapping the car for walking shoes or cycling, can contribute to brain health. Physical activity may reduce the negative effects of chronic stress and have an antidepressant effect.
4. Reduce cognitive decline in older age
Everyone’s at risk of the effects of ageing and the associated decline in cognitive function, but the two don’t have to go hand-in-hand. People who regularly exercise in earlier life, and/or continue doing so in older age, possess higher memory retention, and are at reduced risk of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia.
More articles on exercise for the 60s and over
Read some of our more popular articles on exercise, health, endurance and keeping active:
- Exploring the benefits of being active daily
- How to improve your endurance over 60
- Finding a suitable training range as we get older
- 15 Myths about exercise and older adults
- Free exercise videos on YouTube for the over 60s
– National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study (CARDIA). Read more
– Canadian Science Publishing. Exercise increases mitochondrial glutamate oxidation in the mouse cerebral cortex. Authors: Eric A.F. Herbst and Graham P. Holloway. Publication: Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 17 May 2016. Read more
– EurekAlert! Using exercise to reduce glutamate build-up in the brain. 17 May 2016. Read article
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