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How Does Being Active Support Brain Health?

The reasons to be active and engage in regular exercise are many. Not only does exercise improve your physicality (strength, flexibility, endurance, etc.) it can also improve mental health issues like stress, anxiety, and depression. Also, consider the benefits of decreased risk for chronic diseases like heart disease diabetes, and so many others. The list doesn't end there! Did you know that regular exercise and being active can support brain health as well?

Brain health is defined by The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "as an ability to perform all the mental processes of cognition, including the ability to learn and judge, use language, and remember". One of the best ways to protect your brain from the cognitive decline that often comes with aging is by exercising. According to Harvard Health Publishing, "exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills." Research has discovered that although all exercise is beneficial, aerobic exercise, in particular, seems to make a difference in brain health. Aerobic exercise being anything that gets your heart pumping and makes you a little sweaty- actually has the ability to increase the size of your hippocampus, which is the part of your brain responsible for verbal memory and learning. Exercise has also shown to improve the overall function of the brain due to the stimulation of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells. These growth factors also promote the growth of new blood vessels in the brain and may improve the survival rate of new brain cells.

Although exercise isn't a cure-all, the benefits to brain health certainly cannot be overlooked. According to an article in The Scientist, "following four months of running on the treadmill three days per week for 45 minutes or more, participants drew more accurate pictures from memory than at the beginning of the study, before they started exercising." This study, and the many others that came before it, are overwhelmingly positive examples that exercise can improve brain health. However, if you're thinking that running on a treadmill for at least three days per week for 45 minutes or more is the only way to improve your brain health- then, thankfully, you're wrong.

The "golden" amount of exercise for most individuals is 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, as recommended by the American Heart Association. Moderate-intensity exercise refers to any type of planned activity that gets your heart pumping and makes you break out into a light sweat. Examples include:

  • Dancing

  • Vigorous housework/yard work

  • Brisk walking

  • Jogging/running

  • Swimming

  • Stair climbing

  • Cycling

Although all exercise is good for you (especially strength training and any type of mind-body practice) aerobic exercise seems to have the power to boost brain health exponentially. So, if you're wanting to specifically give your brain a boost make sure you're participating in aerobic activity for at least the recommended 150 minutes per week. If that seems too daunting, start with what you can work into your day. Remember, 10 minutes of brisk walking is better than 0 minutes of brisk walking.

Worried about doing this alone? Try any or all of these ideas:

  • Join a class or work out with a friend who’ll hold you accountable (or find a friend in a class!).

  • Track your progress, which encourages you to reach a goal (there are plenty of freebie fit apps out there to help you with this!).

  • Hire a personal trainer (paying an expert is good motivation, plus it'll keep you safe as you figure all of this out so you can eventually do it on your own).

Not sure if personal training is right for you? That's okay! You can get started for free and receive tons of advice regarding physical, mental, and brain health thanks to St. Andrew's Family Fitness's Starting Point Session. Learn all about it and get started today right here. Our Fitness Team will help you select the best classes, workout routine, and help you plan your goals/habit changes all for free with your membership.

Worldwide wide there are currently over 10 million new cases of dementia every year. Although exercise doesn't necessarily reverse any potential brain diseases, the benefits of getting started and sticking to an exercise routine are clear. It doesn't have to cost much to get started and be consistent, but it could cost you your brain health if you don't.

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