Break a Sweat. Improve Your Brain Health.
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.
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.