Smart up your brain with aerobics at any age

As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age.  But, it’s never too late to lace up some sneakers and work up a sweat for brain health, according to a study published by a group from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada in Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.  The study suggests older adults, even couch potatoes, may perform better on certain thinking and memory tests after just six months of aerobic exercise.

The Calgary study involved 206 adults with an average age of 66 and no history of heart or memory problems.  Before starting the six-month exercise intervention, these participants worked out no more than four days per week at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes or less, or no more than two days per week a high intensity for 20 minutes or less per day.  Participants were given thinking and memory tests at the start of the study, as well as an ultrasound to measure blood flow in the brain.  Physical testing was repeated at three months, whereas thinking and physical testing were repeated at the end of the six months.

Participants were enrolled in a supervised aerobic exercise program held three days a week. As they progressed through the program, they increased their workout from an average of 20 minutes a day to an average of at least 40 minutes. In addition, each participate was instructed to work out on her own once a week.

Researchers tested participates on executive function and verbal influence.  Executive function includes mental flexibility and self-correction.  Verbal fluency tests how quickly you can retrieve information.   Researchers found that, after six months of exercise, participants showed 5.7% improvement on executive function and 2.4% improvement on verbal fluency.  This change in verbal fluency is what you’d expect to see in someone five years younger.

Participants’ average peak blood flow to the brain was also measured before and after six months of aerobic activity.  Blood flow rose from an average of 51.3 centimeters per second (cm/sec) to an average of 52.7 cm/sec after six months of exercise, representing a 2.8% increase.  The increase in blood flow with exercise was associated with a number of modest but significant improvements in thinking and decision making that usually decline as people age.

The Calgary study showed that six months’ worth of vigorous exercise may pump blood to regions of the brain that specifically improve verbal skills as well as memory and mental sharpness.  The study showed that, even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain may be immense.   Aerobic exercise gets blood moving through your body as well as to your brain, especially in areas responsible for verbal fluency and executive functions. The finding suggests that aerobics exercise not only keeps you smart and sharp but also may reduce risk for Alzheimer’s and other dementias and brain disease in the old age.

Thanks for reading.

Journal Reference: Aerobic exercise improves cognition and cerebrovascular regulation in older adults Veronica Guadagni, Lauren L. Drogos, Amanda V. Tyndall, Margie H. Davenport, Todd J. Anderson, Gail A. Eskes, R. Stewart Longman, Michael D. Hill, David B. Hogan, Marc J. Poulin. . Neurology, 2020 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000009478

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