How to Exercise for Better Brain Health, According to Experts
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1 in 6 people worldwide are living with a neurological disorder. In the United States alone, there are approximately 5.8 million people currently living with Alzheimer's disease and 1 million living with Parkinson's disease.
While genetics and age are outside of our control, the good news is that we can put habits into place (like eating a healthy diet and regularly exercising) to help prevent neurological disease, reduce age-related cognitive decline and improve the overall health of our brain.
There is a wealth of research showing that exercise is beneficial to brain health. In fact, a recent study found that exercise improved both brain health and behavior, improved the growth and development of neurons in the brain and reduced toxicity and buildup of proteins on the walls of the arteries of the brain.
To get insight into the research and a better understanding of the role that exercise plays in keeping our brain healthy and in reducing cognitive decline, I spoke with Dr. Marat Reyzelman, M.D., a specialist in Neurology and Clinical Neurophysiology at Wellstar Health System, and Ebony Glover, Ph.D., Director of the Affective Neuroscience Laboratory and Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Kennesaw State University.
How Exercise Benefits Brain Health
Most of us know that getting regular exercise is one of the best ways for us to keep our body healthy. Research shows the value of exercise on reducing the risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. And yet we often overlook the role that exercise plays in keeping our brain healthy.
Reyzelman emphasizes why we must look at exercise as an essential element to maintaining a healthy brain. "Studies have shown that in adults who exercise regularly, there was a significantly reduced rate of brain tissue atrophy as well as signs of vascular tissue injury and silent stroke based on MRI imaging. There was also increased thickening of various parts of the brain cortex—areas vital for memory and thinking functions. In essence, exercise caused patients to maintain or even gain cells in important brain areas, whereas lack of exercise caused an increase in the rate of age-related brain cell loss."
One of the reasons that exercise is so beneficial is linked to the increased oxygen we take in during exercise. Ebony Glover, Ph.D., explains, "The brain is one of the heaviest oxygen consumers in the body. A higher supply of oxygen to the brain has been shown to positively affect cognitive processes, such as learning and memory."
These cognitive processes are neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. Neurogenesis is the growth, development and maintenance of new brain cells. Neuroplasticity is our brain's ability to grow new connections to make up for the deterioration of brain cells throughout our life. Oxygen is vital for both, and regular exercise promotes increased oxygen supply.
Dr. Reyzelman agrees that the increased blood flow and oxygen delivery exercise provides are vital to improving memory, cognition, attention and focus in large part due to its role in keeping the hippocampus healthy. "Studies show that our hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory function, receives increased blood flow and oxygenation when we engage in regular physical exercise. This has been shown in studies to improve cognitive performance across all age groups," Reyzelman says.
In addition, there is a link between brain health and heart health, explains Reyzelman, and one of the ways exercise improves the brain is by improving the health of our cardiovascular system. "Patients who have heart disease are significantly more likely to develop stroke and dementia. Physical exercise, by helping to improve our heart health, results in lowering the risk of stroke and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease. It has also been shown to slow down progression of other neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's disease."
According to Reyzelman, there is also a link between brain health and increased levels of inflammation and stress. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce both inflammation and the production of stress hormones such as cortisol—both of which are associated with increased tissue injury in the brain and accelerated brain aging.
In addition, he reminds us that when we exercise, we increase the brain's production of endorphins and neurotransmitters that help improve our overall sense of physical and mental wellbeing.
How to Exercise for Brain Health
As a certified personal trainer, part of my job is to create the right mix of exercises to address each client's goals and concerns in their program design. Incorporating variety in the types of exercises I include is just one of the ways to achieve this. The same can be said for exercise programming for brain health. According to our experts, there is value in variety and we should look to incorporate exercise in three key areas for the greatest impact: aerobic exercise, strength or resistance training and yoga or mindfulness practice.
The term aerobic means "with oxygen". Knowing the importance of increasing oxygen to the brain to promote neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, its no wonder that aerobic exercise would be at the top of the list of the types of exercise to include in your routine.
Dr. Reyzelman explains, "Studies show that both aerobic and anaerobic exercises can have positive brain health benefits, however aerobic exercises such as running, walking briskly on a treadmill, rowing, swimming or riding a bike have more studies to support their positive effects on brain health. Combining both aerobic (cardiovascular) exercise with some lightweight exercises may provide the greatest benefits."
Strength or resistance training includes any physical exercise that uses resistance—typically your body weight, free weights or machines—to cause a muscular contraction that builds strength and anaerobic endurance. There is evidence to suggest that including resistance or strength training is beneficial to promoting a healthy brain.
A recent study found that individuals who participated in a strength training program showed overall benefits to cognitive performance and showed protection from degeneration in regions of the hippocampus, the brain's center for learning and memory. Participants completed 90 minutes of strength training exercises each week, typically broken down into two or three sessions. They completed this regimen for six months and the positive impact was still visible up to one year later.
Yoga has long been associated as a method of exercise that provides mental health benefits. Numerous studies indicate that yoga may be used as an effective tool for reducing anxiety, depression and stress. With its focus on deep breathing and using body weight to build strength, flexibility and mobility, it's also an excellent choice for promoting a healthy brain.
Research suggests that practicing yoga can enhance brain function and structure, positively impacting the function of the hippocampus and may help to reduce age-related declines in brain health.
How Much Exercise Do We Need?
Dr. Reyzelman gives great advice, saying, "The more exercise, the better, but some physical activity is better than none." And suggests that while there are studies that show that we receive the greatest cardiovascular benefit—remember the link between heart health and brain health—when we exercise at least five hours each week; that at minimum, we should get two and a half to three hours each week with at least 30 to 45 minutes in each session.
"Starting slowly and building your stamina over time will likely result in the greatest benefits. For those starting an exercise routine after a long period of inactivity, seeing a physician and discussing a customized approach before beginning an exercise program is recommended."
Bottom Line: Healthy Body, Healthy Brain
By taking care of our bodies—our cardiovascular system, musculoskeletal system and our stress-response—we are also taking care of our brain.
"Exercise has been shown to benefit patients with neurologic disorders such as migraine headaches, dementia, Parkinson's disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, depression and anxiety, chronic pain and sleep disorders to name a few," says Dr. Reyzelman. And Dr. Glover adds, "Research shows that older adults who live more physically active lifestyles tend to have higher cognitive function compared to older adults who live more sedentary lifestyles."
While there are certainly factors that are outside of our control, we can take steps each day to slow-down or delay cognitive decline through exercise, leading to overall improved cognition and improved health and wellbeing.