We have now discovered many benefits of exercise for cardiovascular health, weight loss, stress management, and mood lifting. Mounting evidences are suggesting that exercise can boost brain function and protect against dementia. This makes great physiologic sense: increased blood flow to the brain means more oxygen and nutrients in and toxins out. But are those anecdotal evidences pointing to a real benefit? The answer is a resounding yes, according to a group of exercise physiologists in Australia.
The Australian scientists examined over 10,000 quality studies of exercise and brain function. The scientists then narrowed their list down to 39 studies; each study fits the following criteria:
- The study included people over 50 years old;
- The study tested at least four weeks of supervised exercise intervention;
- Each study included a validated measure of brain function at the beginning and end of each study; and
- The study included healthy people or those with mild cognitive impairment, but excluded people with neurological or psychiatric diagnoses like strokes or depression.
The researchers then took the data from those studies and applied statistical analyses to evaluate:
- the types of exercise (cardio, resistance training like weights, both, yoga, or tai chi)
- the exercise intensity (low, medium, high)
- the duration, in minutes
- frequency (how often) and length (1 to 3 months, 3 to 6 months, or over 6 months)
- various brain functions (general cognition, attention, executive function, and memory).
Based on the data, the researchers observed that any moderate cardio exercise performed regularly for at least 45 minutes, regardless of frequency or length, improved multiple cognitive functions, as did resistance training; and Tai chi improved memory. These results were seen regardless of baseline cognition, meaning even people with early dementia saw benefits. Yoga did not have a statistically significant effect, but the authors point out that there were fewer articles testing tai chi and yoga interventions.
The researchers concluded that many types of exercise can improve memory, and that specific exercise may be tailored to improving specific cognitive functions.
The take home message is that an active lifestyle benefits the brain health and potentially boosts your brain function. If you want to feel and function better, do something active — take walk briskly, climb the stairs instead of taking the elevator, jog, hike, cycle, do aerobics, or dance around, or, take a Pilates class, lift some weights, perhaps even get some yard work or home improvements done. You will have a better brain to show for the work.
Thanks for reading.
Journal Reference: Joseph Michael Northey, Nicolas Cherbuin, Kate Louise Pumpa, Disa Jane Smee, Ben Rattray, Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis, British Journal of Sports Medicine, March 2017.
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