Older woman exercises in the gym to help reduce the risk of dementia

What Are the Brain Changing Benefits of Exercise?

What Are the Brain Changing Benefits of Exercise?

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Following a regular exercise routine may be the key to reaching old age with "all your marbles," rather than living your final days in the fog of dementia. According to a recent study from Rush University published in the Journal of the Alzheimer's Association, older adults who remain physically active until their last breath had higher levels of proteins that support brain function.

The 404 participants in this study donated their brains for analysis postmortem and had undergone studies during their lifetime which measured sleep and motor activity (one of the few brain studies of humans involving analysis via autopsy.) The participants who engaged in late-life physical exercise had more presynaptic proteins in their brains, which have a protective effect, and enhance the exchange of neurotransmitters and other information between brain cells (neurons).

New findings about exercise and Alzheimer's

What makes this study different from the huge body of work over the years that's shown the beneficial cognitive effects of physical activity? This research out of Rush revealed that the protective effects of exercise go beyond the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory and learning, and have a global impact on other brain areas related to cognitive function.

What's more, the results were constant even for people who show the accumulation of toxic proteins associated with Alzheimer's disease.

"Our work is the first that uses human data to show that synaptic protein regulation is related to physical activity and may drive the beneficial cognitive outcomes we see," explained the authors. "Maintaining the integrity of these connections between neurons may be vital to fending off dementia, since the synapse is really the site where cognition happens."

What are three effects of exercise on the brain?

The health benefits of physical exercise are unequivocal, and they go beyond building lean muscle mass and feeling confident in your swimwear. Exercise changes your brain by supporting cognitive function.

  1. Memory boost

    —Research has shown that aerobic exercise training helps increase the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with memory and learning.
  2. More plastic brain

    —Studies have shown that physical exercise enhances neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to "rewire" itself as we learn and experience new things.
  3. Forming new neurons

    —Full-body physical exercise like jogging, swimming, and resistance training has been shown to promote neurogenesis, the generation of new neurons.

Best type of exercises for your brain

Some of us are not the "gym rat" types when it comes to exercise. If we can get away with briskly walking around the block, we'll do it. But to truly get those brain-friendly gains, you want to focus on aerobic exercises, the kind that get you sweating and breathing heavy.

When you follow exercise programs that incorporate resistance training like HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts and weightlifting, your breath and heart rate will increase, sending newly oxygenated blood to your brain (and the rest of you). And you don't have to spend hours exercising, just 30 minutes a day at least five days a week is all it takes!

Pro-tip: Mix it up! Target and tone up large muscle groups by including light weightlifting in your routine twice a week.

You can also keep your mind sharp by doing brain exercises—don't worry, it's not just puzzles and sudoku. The key is to incorporate activities that engage mental focus and attention.

  • Learn something new

    —Whether you pick up public speaking, French, or how to play the ukulele, getting out of your comfort zone prompts your brain cells to rewire and form new connections.
  • Smile more

    —Studies have shown that depressive symptoms are linked to cognitive decline and more severe brain health concerns. Cultivating a "zen" state of mind and a happier outlook can go a long way in supporting mental health and function.
  • Play video games

    —Recent studies have shown that video games can offer an enriched environment and novel experiences, supporting and improving cognitive function.

Five benefits of regular exercise

Making time for physical activity does wonders for your mind, body, and soul. Need more reasons to stay physically active? Here are five benefits of regular exercise.

  1. Better focus

    —Research suggests that exercise boosts concentration because it prompts the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, brain chemicals that influence focus and attention.
  2. Calm mood, less stress

    —Extensive research shows that moving more is a great way to stress less because it's a way for the body to relieve stress. Plus, once you're all done and sweaty, you feel calm, relaxed and refreshed.
  3. Cardiovascular health

    —Exercise has been shown to improve blood flow, slow the heart rate, and lower blood pressure, supporting overall heart health.
  4. Manage a healthy weight

    —Physical exercise strengthens muscles and joints. But it also helps your body find a balance and maintain a healthy weight, especially when you complement your exercise routine with healthy food choices.
  5. Lowering inflammation

    —Studies have shown that regular exercise supports a healthy inflammatory response by prompting the body to adapt to the stressors and challenges it experiences through physical activity.

It's never too late (or early) to find an exercise program you enjoy and can incorporate into your daily habits. Your lifestyle choices—eating healthy meals, staying hydrated, prioritizing mental peace and restful sleep, and full-body movement—are the foundation for a brain-healthy tomorrow.



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The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.