Exercise and your brain

Exercise and Your Brain: How Staying Active Can Keep You Young

As we age, the mind and body stop working as they once did. We forget things. We get aches and pains. We wake up feeling stiff.

But regular exercise can help stave off the effects of aging.

While seniors need to be careful about the intensity of their exercise and the activities they choose, it’s still important to stay active as you age.

Improve Your Memory

The hippocampus is most affected by exercise. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise actually expands this area of the brain, which is responsible for memory.

As we age, memory issues are a serious concern. Regular physical exercise will help keep your memory intact.

Exercise will gradually improve your memory function, but you’ll also see immediate effects in memory formation. Studies have shown that exercising before learning helps the information stick.

Fends Off Anxiety and Depression

Whether you love or hate exercise, there’s no denying it’s beneficial effects on emotional health and mood.

The elation that follows exercise is a very real emotion.

Exercise triggers an “endorphin rush,” which gives you a “natural high.” The effects help fend off anxiety and depression.

While serious cases of depression and anxiety require treatment from a professional, mild cases can often be helped by regular bouts of exercise. A 2013 study found that exercise is nearly as effective as antidepressants and psychological treatments.

Enhance Your Concentration

Exercise can not only improve your memory, but your concentration as well. One study found that bouts of exercise in between lessons helped improve the attention spans of students.

Another study found that children who engaged in after-school sports were better at ignoring distractions and multitasking.

Better Creativity

Creativity declines as we age, but you can help slow this decline by staying active. Studies have shown that walking, or engaging in any type of exercise, supported divergent thinking, or the idea-generating aspect of creative thought.

Prevent Cognitive Decline

Research has shown that staying physically active keeps your brain healthy well into old age. And it doesn’t have to be intensive exercise either. All it takes is 30-45 minutes of brisk walking a few times a week to help delay dementia.

While the effects are most prominent if you begin exercising early on in life, it can still help later on and preserve cognitive function.

If you prefer a more vigorous workout, weightlifting has proven neurological impacts, and even dancing can help keep the brain young and healthy.

It’s believed that improved blood flow to the brain helps improve its network of blood vessels and triggers the release of growth hormones.

Spurs Brain Growth

As we age, brain cell growth slows and the brain tissue actually starts to shrink. Exercise can prevent this from happening.

One study found that healthy people aged 60-79 who led sedentary lifestyles saw significant increases in brain volume after doing aerobic fitness for six months. In that study, the control group saw no improvement.

Improvements in cardiovascular fitness, according to researchers, is linked with fewer age-related brain changes. Part of the reason why this happens is because of improved blood flow to the brain. Increased or improved blood flows delivers much-needed oxygen to the brain. And in case you didn’t know – the brain uses up 20% of the oxygen in your body.

Studies have shown that older adults who exercise regularly have larger brain volumes than those who lead sedentary lives.

Combats the Effects of Stress

Stress is a part of life, but that doesn’t mean it has to wreak havoc on your mental state. Cortisol, the stress hormone, actually causes the brain to age faster. Forgetfulness and scattered thinking is often caused by cortisol.

Exercise lowers stress hormone levels and helps generate new nerve cells in the area of the brain responsible for creating new memories. In times of great stress, brain cells are depleted.

Lower stress also helps you get a good nights sleep.

Gives You Energy

It may sound counterintuitive, but exercise actually improves energy levels – something that many seniors struggle with.

Having more energy often means having more motivation and desire to get out and do things. If you’re feeling energetic, you’ll be more inclined to accept that friend’s invitation to dinner or get out into the garden.

Preserving White Matter

One study found that staying active has a profound effect on the structural integrity of white matter in the brain. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter what type of exercise or how strenuous it is – it just matters that you exercise at all. Spending most of the day sedentary has a dramatic effect on the integrity of white matter in the brain.

Slows the Effects of Aging

Studies have shown that exercise leads to longer caps at the ends of chromosomes. These caps shorten as we age, but those who live for a long time have longer caps.

Using data from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination, researchers found that people who exercise regularly had much longer caps than those who led sedentary lives. Essentially, the active people were years “younger” than their sedentary counterparts.

Lifestyle differences affect the biological age of humans, so your body may be years older than your chronological age if you’re living a sedentary lifestyle.

You know that exercise is important, but how much of it does your body need? Experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, but the intensity level is still up for debate. For seniors, getting out and moving is the most important thing – whether it’s a walk in the park or gardening in the backyard.