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Exercise for Brain Health

Updated: Sep 3, 2023

By Oran Aviv

Research today shows that physical activity can lower the risk of many conditions. from diabetes to depression, and can increase life expectancy.

Exercise may also be the most critical lifestyle change you can make to prevent cognitive decline and dementia.


Most Important: Diet or Exercise?

In her twenties, Christina Pirello healed herself of terminal cancer with a Macrobiotic diet, which is based on whole grains and whole foods. Christina is a well-known Macrobiotic author, teacher, and cook.


I’ve written about Christine Pirello, in a previous blog post Vitamin B12 for Brain Health .

In one of her workshops that I attended, Christina and her husband, the person who introduced her to a Macrobiotic Diet and in doing so saved her life, asked us this question:

If you could eat the healthiest food, but couldn’t work out or exercise at all,

Or

If you could only eat fast food (i.e. McDonald's) but could work out and exercise,


Which would you choose?


We were all shocked to hear, that this couple, who are known for following and promoting a healthy Macrobiotic diet, would choose the latter. They felt that for good health, physical activity was even more important than a healthy diet! In other words, even if you are eating a very healthy diet, if you are not physically active, you will be undermining your health.


Research has also shown that lack of activity may be a more important factor than diet for determining earlier death


A 2015 study that followed 334,161 European men and women found that not being active could cause twice as many deaths as being obese!


Physical inactivity may theoretically be responsible for twice as many total deaths as high BMI (≥30) in this population


In this video, Dr. Mike Evans illustrates (literally) how exercise is the most important lifestyle change you can make to prevent illness and early death.





Exercise Protects Our Brain

How does exercise affect our brain?

Exercise:

  • Increases the flow of blood to our brain

  • Decreases dementia risk factors like heart disease and diabetes

  • Activates our brain cells

Aerobic exercise:

  • Increases the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that's associated with memory formation.

  • Increases the number of synapses in brain cells, which means it creates new brain cells.

  • Can lower the chances of getting Alzheimer’s by as much as 50%.


In a study to test if aerobic activity could slow down cognitive decline, researchers studied people ages 55 to 85 who had mild cognitive impairment (MCI). This is an early stage of memory loss and decline in learning capabilities which often leads to dementia. The participants were divided into two groups. One group did stretches while the other group participated in aerobic activities. Both groups worked out under supervision for 45 to 60 min a day, 4 days a week for 6 months.


At the end of 6 months, there was a greater decrease in cognitive ability of those who only did stretches. In the group that participated in aerobic activity, there was no decrease in cognitive decline, and surprisingly there was even improvement. The participants scored higher on their cognitive tests after six months of working out!

In a more recent study, researchers were able to show that aerobic exercise increased the amount of gray matter in the brain.


"This provides indirect evidence that aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on cognitive function in addition to physical conditioning,"

Ronald Petersen, M.D., Ph.D., Mayo Clinic neurologist


As we age, areas of our brains shrink. This begins in our ‘30s and shrinkage increases more rapidly when we reach our ‘60s. This is the reason that as we age, it may be more difficult to problem-solve or remember things.


If exercise can increase the size of our brain, that is something we should all literally be running to do.



Begin with Baby Steps

If you have not been working out – begin with baby steps. There are two main reasons for this.


👉🏼 First, if you get up tomorrow morning, put on some sneakers, and start running around the block, you most probably will hurt yourself and you will not want to exercise again.


👉🏼 Second, if your first workout is fun and easy, there is a much greater chance that you will be willing to go out and move again.


I normally suggest to my clients who have not been physically active, to set their mobile phone timer to 7 ½ minutes.


They begin walking in whichever direction they want until the alarm rings. Then they turn around and return home for a total of 15 minutes of walking.


This is already a great improvement and chances are that it will be easy to find 15 minutes several times a week to repeat this again and again.


It is better to keep the workout to only 15 minutes each day in the beginning until they build up a routine. Later they can slowly increase the length of time and the intensity of the walk by walking at a faster pace.

My other suggestion to clients is to find ways to exercise more within their daily routine:

  • Rather than look for the closest parking place, park further away so they can walk to their destination

  • Skip the elevator and walk up or down the stairs.

  • Get a dog - this guarantees 2-3 walks a day!


If you are already working out, consider increasing the amount of exercise you do so your brain will reap more benefits. I also highly recommend working out with a group. In this way you can protect your brain by both exercising and being socially active.


Too Much Too Fast

When I studied Trigger Point Massage for the rehabilitation of sports injuries, we learned about specific injuries, what caused them, and how to treat them.

The cause for many sports injuries was often the same: “Doing too much, too fast”


Sadly these injuries could have been prevented if the person had worked up to their goal at a slower pace or listened to what their bodies were telling them.


From my work with pain and sports injury, this is what I would like to share:

  • If you are in pain, something is wrong.

  • The adage “No Pain No Gain!” causes injuries.

  • Ignoring pain will lead to more serious injuries.

If your muscles are very sore after a workout, you either overdid it, are working incorrectly or you may need to overcome inflammation. (Read my blog Age and Aches.)


If you are not a professional athlete who must reach their top level by a certain race, you can get to the same level of fitness by building up your muscles over a longer time span.


I have worked with runners, triathletes, and even Ironman runners who compete without pain. They might have tight muscles that need to be released, but they do not run in pain. If they are hurting, they get checked and solve the issue.


I work with runners who are in their 60s who do not suffer from any pain during or after running. However, I do know younger runners who had to stop running because they continued working out and ignored their pain.


If you are in pain, listen to your body and check the reason for the pain so you can prevent injury.

To prevent injury, work with a professional who can prepare a workout plan that is correct for you.

In summary:

✅ Exercise may be the most important lifestyle change you can make to prevent illness and early death.

✅ Exercise can prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s

✅ Begin a new exercise program slowly

✅ Pain should never be part of your exercise program


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