Aerobic Exercise Key for Brain Health

Practice helps prevent cognitive decline, say experts

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

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Aerobic exercise may offer protection from cognitive decline, according to two recent studies.

• Researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 2017 published a report showing that about one-third of Alzheimer’s disease cases could be prevented through changes in habits — including exercise.

• A small study by the Center for Aging and Health at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden showed up to a 90 percent reduction in dementia associated with fitness regimens begun women in their 50s who were followed for the next 44 years. Very few of the fittest women experienced dementia. The benefit lessened for women who were active, but not as fit, according to the study.

Although any activity is better than no activity, an occasional stroll to the mailbox or quietly puttering in the garden won’t do it. To achieve this positive effect, the World Health Organization recommends that people 65 and older participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate to 75 minutes of intense activity every week.

You may not dream of achieving a buff beach body, but staying fit may benefit the brain.

Other studies indicate that starting younger in life offers the most benefit, but “it’s never too late to start,” said Cathy James, co-chairwoman of the New York State Alzheimer’s Association Coalition. “Sometimes we think of high impact, but even moderate exercise may help us lower our risk for things like Alzheimer’s disease and it can contribute to brain health.”

If the exercise involves learning and retaining skills, such as taking a martial arts class, that may offer more benefits, as would exercise that’s social in nature, such as participating on a sports team. Involving music could also promote more brain activity while in motion, such as a dance class.

Jill Murphy, certified personal trainer and co-owner of Mission Fitness in East Syracuse, said that aerobic exercise is recommended for cognitive health by Joseph Mercola, a board-certified physician in family medicine and author of three New York Times best-selling books.

“One of the things he found is when you do aerobic exercise, you create neuro-genesis,” Murphy said. “You’re producing new brain cells. Aerobic exercise helps rejuvenate and regenerate the brain, which fights dementia.”

Murphy added that aerobic exercise helps reduce stress, depression and sleeplessness: all conditions associated with declining cognitive health.

Murphy encourages clients to find a form of exercise or activity they like.

“That’s the key,” she said. “You could try Zumba if you like dance. If you like being outside, find something outside. If you enjoy it, you’ll keep doing it.

“Try out different things you’ll enjoy doing. Educate yourself about the benefits and why you do it. You many not enjoy it 100 percent, but at least you’ll get a return on your investment.”

Murphy wants younger people to start the habit of exercise earlier in life, rather than waiting. But older adults can still benefit from exercise, including improving overall health, possibly reducing the need for certain kinds of medication (with doctor approval), and supporting brain health.

Though exercise offers numerous benefits to body and mind, it can’t guarantee lifelong cognitive health. Genetics, nutrition, social engagement and advanced age all represent other risk factors for cognitive decline.

Before undertaking any change in nutrition or exercise, consult with a health care provider. A personal trainer may offer helpful advice for exercising safely and effectively.

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