In 2017, The Lancet published a study that found nearly 3% of all Alzheimer’s cases may be caused by a lack of exercise. Since then, there is growing research identifying the protective effect of physical activity against aging-associated dementia. Some evidence also suggests exercise can increase the levels of neuroprotective growth factors, boost the generation of new brain cells and reduce inflammation.
While no studies have proven any one exercise is best when it comes to brain and memory health, Howard Fillit, MD, executive director and chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, says the best workout is one that you enjoy. “Brisk walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming can all benefit your brain health and choosing an exercise you like to do will help you continue long term, which is the most important way to make sure you see the benefit,” he says. “There are some things to look for when it comes to choosing a workout routine—namely, that it stimulates your cognition to keep your body and mind fit.”
Research suggests certain activities offer unique benefits:
Make your heart pump! Regular aerobic exercise of at least 30 minutes per day boosts blood flow to your brain and boosts the size of your hippocampus, the part of your brain involved in verbal memory and learning. Studies found an association between low physical activity and dementia risk. Researchers did MRI scans of about 2,000 people 60 or older and found that the more active, the larger their hippocampus. In addition, the protective effects were highest in those over age 75, adding more evidence that it’s never too late to start.
Build your muscles! Clinical studies conducted in 2020 found that six months of strength training can help prevent shrinkage of the hippocampus in older adults, and balance, tone and resistance training produced the best results for memory and other cognition measurements. When you lift weights, you focus on form and performing specific moves, which in turn exercises the neural circuits in your brain. It is recommended that all major muscle groups be exercised two to three times per week, which allows time for muscles to rest.
Put on your dancing shoes! A landmark New England Journal of Medicine study followed seniors for more than 20 years and found that regular dancing reduced the risk of dementia by 76% – twice as much as reading. More recently, a 2017 review published in Current Alzheimer Research, concluded that dance interventions improved cognitive function in dementia patients.
If you’ve slacked off your exercise routine, do not jump into an activity as it may raise your risk of injury. Start easy and slowly increase activity levels. Speak with your physician before beginning a new exercise plan. Consistency is key as it takes 6-12 months of regular exercise to detect changes in cognitive functioning.
Whether you are concerned about age-related memory loss or looking to improve cognition, research overwhelmingly shows integrating exercise into your daily routine is an important first step.
Editorial by Patricia Riley, MBA, board member of Alzheimers Coachella Valley, a community resource for dementia support and education. For more information, call (760) 776.3100 or visit www.cvalzheimers.org.