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Exercise – good for your brain?

Previous studies have already suggested that aerobic exercise has a major impact on brain health. We all know that Aerobic exercise help to reduce levels of the body’s natural stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, making you feel more relaxed. But there’s growing evidence that brains thrive on regular physical activity all the way from childhood to old age, say researchers at Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition.

Childhood and adolescence may turn out to be critical for influencing brain health in later life, says Dr Helen Macpherson whose recent review of research linking physical activity to brain health was published in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience, although we need more research to determine this. “Physical activity in the early years may set up long term behaviours  that promote healthier brains over the lifespan. At any age it may be important to consider the benefits of a healthy lifestyle for maintaining a healthy brain, rather than focusing on the impact on our waistlines,” she points out. Besides paying off with a lower risk of dementia and Parkinson’s disease in older age, a lifelong exercise habit – especially one that includes building strength – can benefit the brain at different life stages and even have direct effects on its structure and function.

Don’t fret if you weren’t the most active child – it is not too late at all! Researchers believe that the “mid-life-zone” (between the ages of 40 and 60) may be important for building defences against dementia. Regular exercise to prevent high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes – both of which can damage the brain’s delicate blood vessels over time – can reduce the risk of dementia. Yet protecting these blood vessels is only part of what exercise can do, especially when you combine aerobic exercise – like brisk walking, jogging or cycling –  with resistance exercises that build strength.

“We used to think  that we’re born with all the brain cells we’ll ever have but we now know that in the hippocampus – the part of the brain involved with memory – brain cells can regenerate throughout life  and that exercise can promote new growth,” explains Macpherson. “One benefit of resistance training is that it increases production of a growth hormone called IGF, (insulin-like growth factor) which can have a big influence on memory. IGF crosses into the brain and has two effects – it supports the growth of brain cells and also helps to insulate these cells and improve communication between them.”

“Studies have found that 70- to 80 year-olds who’ve been involved in moderate to vigorous physical activity for 150 minutes a week in the previous five or more years have a 40 per cent lower chance of developing dementia,” she says.

Another study of brest cancer survivors came to a similar conclusion, showing that regular workouts can help protect against age-related cognitive decline and improve memory.

The researchers wanted to see if activities like walking, cycling and swimming could have any effect on “chemo brain,” a side effect of breast cancer treatment that involves memory loss and difficulties focusing. Their study found women who did daily aerobic exercise were not only less tired than those who did little or no exercise, but they also performed better on quizzes designed to test their memory and attention.

Their conclusion? “Aerobic exercise is the key for your head, just as it is for your heart,” the authors write.

Did you need another reason to get the exercise video out?

About Eve Williams

Eve Williams
Eve Williams is the Production and Social Media Administrator for Eldernet. She is currently studying towards her Masters at the University of Canterbury. She has a passion for learning new things.

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