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Exercise Can Help Keep the Brain ‘Young’

Elderly Exercising

Everyone knows that regular exercise is good for the body, and a growing body of evidence shows it is also good for the brain. Now a new study shows just how good exercise can be for maintaining thinking skills, no matter your age.

The study found that regular aerobic activities like walking, cycling or climbing stairs improved thinking skills in people in their 20s, and that the benefits of exercise on thinking skills continued to accrue as people age.

“As people age, there can be a decline in thinking skills,” said study author Yaakov Stern of Columbia University in New York. “Our study shows that getting regular exercise may help slow or even prevent such decline.”

Participants who exercised showed improvements in executive function, the ability to pay attention, organize things and achieve goals. These skills diminish with age and are strongly compromised by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

For the study, published in Neurology, researchers looked at 132 people ranging in age from 20 to 67. None of them exercised regularly, and they were generally regarded to have low fitness levels. None had memory problems at the start of the study.

Study volunteers were randomly assigned to six months of either aerobic exercise or stretching and toning four times a week. They were coached and monitored at a fitness center and wore heart rate monitors to assess their workout intensity.

The aerobic exercisers walked on a treadmill, cycled on a stationary bike or used elliptical machines, building up their exercise intensity gradually toward a goal of training at 75 percent of their maximum heart rate capacity; their maximum heart rate capacity was calculated based on their age.

People in the stretching and toning group did exercises to promote flexibility and core strength.

Participants also got regular tests of memory and thinking skills at the start of the study, then again at three months and six months. The researchers found that aerobic exercise increased thinking skills, boosting overall scores on tests of executive function by 0.50 points by the end of the study. That compared with an increase of 0.25 points among those who did stretching and toning exercises.

“Since a difference of 0.5 standard deviations is equivalent to 20 years of age-related difference in performance on these tests, the people who exercised were testing as if they were about 10 years younger at age 40 and about 20 years younger at age 60,” Dr. Stern said. “Our research confirms that exercise can be beneficial to adults of any age.”

Earlier studies have found that people with mild Alzheimer’s disease may benefit from regular physical activity as well. In addition, a home exercise program can provide a cost-effective solution for improving the physical frailty that often arises in those with Alzheimer’s disease too.

Scientists propose several reasons why exercise may benefit the brain. Physical fitness has been shown to benefit blood vessels, including those in the brain, and good blood flow to the brain may be critical for maintaining memory and thinking. Physical activity has also been shown to boost the growth of nerve cells in the adult brain and release various growth factors important for nerve cell maintenance.

Check with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine, to be sure it is safe for you. But finding a routine that is good for you may help not just your body, but also your brain.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Yaakov Stern, Anna MacKay-Brandt, Seonjoo Lee, et al: Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults: a randomized clinical trial.” Neurology Feb. 26, 2019

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