BY WENDY SUZUKI
What if I told you that there was something that you could do right now that would make you say, “Gee, I think my brain is working better today!” And what if I told you that this same process might not only strengthen the parts of your brain that’s most susceptible to aging but could help protect your brain from incurable neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. Would you do it? Of course, you would! I’m talking about the transformative power of physical activity.
Why is moving your body good for your brain?
Moving your body regularly has protective benefits on your brain that lasts a lifetime.
Every 65 second, someone in the US is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. That means that in the next hour, fifty-five more people will be diagnosed just in this country alone. And the worst part is that there is no effective treatment or universally accepted prevention strategy for Alzheimer’s disease today.
The good news–and what science is reaffirming–is that engaging in physical activity enhances and strengthens the hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s key for long-term memory. In addition, the hippocampus is one of the initial areas of the brain that’s affected by Alzheimer’s disease, which explains why memory loss is a cardinal symptom.
Physical activity stimulates the release of growth factor, which, in turn, causes the birth of brand-new brain cells in the hippocampus. It also makes existing hippocampal cells respond more effectively by creating new points of communication within the synapsis. Physical activity also activates the growth of brand-new blood vessels throughout the rest of the brain. This leads to overall better brain blood flow and better overall performance.
In this sense, you can think about your hippocampus like a muscle; the more you move your body over your lifetime, the bigger and better it becomes. To be clear, regular physical activity does not cure Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, it maximizes hippocampal structure and function, so it can better withstand both normal aging as well the plaques and tangles that can build up in this structure if you do develop the disease.
How much exercise do I need to do to get these protective effects?
The answer to this question differs depending on your current level of movement. If you don’t have a lot of regular activity in your life at the moment, your key take-home message is: every step counts. For example, one study showed that simply walking three times a week or more decreased your chance of developing dementia by 30% (note that the most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease). So regular walking is an effective level of activity to help protect your brain. If you already include regular movement in your life, you are already on your way to building a stronger and longer-lasting hippocampus.
The specific recommendation for this group of people is to challenge yourself with your exercise. The biggest brain benefits have been seen when you do enough exercise to improve your cardiorespiratory function. To achieve this, simply challenge yourself, a little at a time, to push harder and/or longer at whatever workout you are doing. How do know you’ve challenged yourself enough? If you notice that the form of movement seems easier or you moved your body for a longer duration without even noticing it, that’s a great indication that you succeeded!
The best news is that every single one of you has the power to better protect your brain from aging and neurodegenerative disease, and it all starts with a single step.