Break a Sweat. Improve Your Brain Health.

Lara Hitchcock, MD, FAAFP
By Lara Hitchcock, MD, FAAFP
October 16, 2020
Brain health can be improved with exercise.

While we know that exercise has many health benefits — it can help prevent or treat cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and even certain cancers — staying active can also help boost your brain health. 

Research shows that physical activity is linked to strengthening the brain. It regularly can reduce stress (physically and emotionally), enrich mood and even improve memory and cognition. 
In my MDVIP-affiliated practice, I’ve seen great improvement in brain function in patients who maintain a regular exercise routine. This is in line with continued research that suggests physical activity can improve the memory right after a workout and over the long term. 

For example, in a recent study, researchers found the hippocampus, which is the memory and learning center of the brain, showed improvement in volume, blood supply and oxygen levels. This research (in rats not humans) mirrors earlier studies that show a physical benefit to the brain for exercise. A 2011 randomized controlled study in adults found that aerobic exercise increased hippocampal volume by two percent, reducing age-related shrinkage by one to two years. 

Members of Dr. Lara Hitchcock's MDVIP-affiliated practice take part in a Tai Chi class.
Members of Dr. Lara Hitchcock's MDVIP-affiliated practice take part in a Tai Chi class.

There is plenty of other research which shows physical activity can delay brain aging and reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Physical activity also can help gray and white matter of the brain, which aids in thinking, memory, attention span and perception. People who are physically active do better with reasoning, vocabulary, memory and reaction time.

How does exercise actually help your brain? In addition to growth of new neurons in the hippocampus (called hippocampal neurogenesis), exercise is associated with brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps support existing neurons and encourages the growth of new ones; serotonin, key hormone that regulates mood, feelings, etc.; and adiponectin, a protein hormone that modulates a number of metabolic processes. Lesson learned here – it’s best to combine strength training with moderate exercise. 

How much exercise is enough to see the benefits? I recommend my patients get moderate exercise two to three times per week. I also recommend a mix of low-impact exercises, like tai chi, yoga, Pilates and walking based on their brain health status, medical history and specific needs and abilities. These activities (which I also prescribe for myself) help with mental health as well. I suggest participating in one or all of these activities at least twice a week. Doing something daily is even better. 

Here’s what an exercise plan looks like for improving or maintaining brain health:

  • Meditation or some form of a stretching-type of exercise: two times per week
  • Moderate aerobic exercise, such as briskly walking or swimming: five days per week
  • Strength training to hit all muscle groups (can combine strength and meditative exercise with tai chi, yoga or Pilates): two days per week

These suggested activities are based on growing and consistent research, along with personal experience. No matter what activities appeal to you, it is important to include a relaxation and stretching activity, a moderate aerobic activity and strength training for all muscle groups. 

In addition, my patients and I have extensive tools, technology and resources to help identify the most effective physical fitness plans. Through MDVIP Connect, I can prescribe customized fitness routines, and my patients also have access to thousands of exercises through their portal. The exercises are animated with detailed descriptions and instructions and vary from general fitness, prevention and rehabilitation. 

A little activity goes a long way – your body will feel better and so will your brain. 

Dr. Lara Hitchcock is a board-certified family medicine physician in Orlando, Florida with special interests in brain health and women’s health. She earned her medical degree at the renowned Mayo Clinic Medical School and received her undergraduate degree in neurobiology at University of Florida. She is currently accepting a limited number of new patients.  

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About the Physician
Lara Hitchcock, MD, FAAFP

I believe that each patient should be heard and treated with compassion. I am not a fan of what I call “cookie-cutter medicine.” I believe I can help my patients better achieve their health goals thanks to having more time with them and by helping formulate a plan after taking the time to listen and better understand their needs. My family medicine practice has served the Bay Hill, Windermere, Isleworth, Golden Oak and other southwest Orlando, Florida, communities for more than 20 years.

Similar to conveniences often associated with concierge medicine practices, my MDVIP-affiliated practice offers same- or next-day appointments that start on time. The annual MDVIP Wellness Program Plus  is important for my patients. This program of comprehensive diagnostic tests and screenings focused on key areas of your health has been shown to help better detect certain risk factors earlier. 

In addition to working on better preventing heart disease, stroke and other illnesses, I also am also passionate about trying to help patients maintain better cognitive health. My team and I work hard to try to help alleviate the stress out of being a patient in today’s healthcare system by having more time to work with specialists and offering after-hours reachability.

We also offer screenings for genetic anomalies, food sensitivity, cancer markers and cardiac and cognitive function. I believe that, with these screenings, we can better identify, treat and manage conditions such as obesity, insulin-resistance and type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, cognitive changes and brain fog, chronic fatigue and other chronic disease, as well as acute illnesses.

In addition to the services included in the MDVIP Wellness Program, I also offer women’s health procedures, as well as dermatologic services and other advances testing and treatments. 

I feel that staying connected with academia and the medical community helps me to offer a more personalized experience and services for my patients. I have achieved a Degree of Fellow with the American Academy of Family Physicians for outstanding service to family medicine. I am affiliated with Orlando Health. I also serve as an associate professor of medicine with the Florida State University College of Medicine and serve on the board of Independent Physicians Network. And I proudly serve as regional chair for the Medical Advisory Board of MDVIP. I am excited to have the time and resources as a MDVIP-affiliated physician to help improve the health of my patients and their quality of life now and for the future! 

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