There are many good reasons to exercise regularly. Physical activity, whether gentle or vigorous, is a proven mood booster. It can help us maintain a healthy weight, control our blood pressure, reduce the risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease, reduce stress, and strengthen muscles and bones. It also turns out that regular sweat sessions (or after-dinner walks) may be a real boost to cognitive function now and in the future.
When we exercise, our heart rate increases and this sends more oxygen to the brain. Have you ever noticed that you feel clearer and sharper after a good brisk walk? This is because exercising your body and brain are one and the same.
What are the benefits of exercise?
Right now, here are some specific benefits you might notice right away when exercising.
Improved focus and concentration. Studies have shown that even a single workout can help you improve your ability to concentrate. It’s especially noticeable if your workout gets your heart rate up – try jumping rope, brisk walking or running, biking, swimming, or hitting a tennis ball against the garage door. After half an hour of exercise you will probably notice an increase in your ability to concentrate and this can last for two hours or more.
Better reaction times. It’s important to know that you can strengthen and improve your reaction time, which will help you now and in the future. It is natural for our reaction time to slow down as we age, usually due to reduced or impaired cognitive function. Healthy and fast reaction times help us with everyday tasks like walking, cooking, driving, or other mundane tasks. In a more extreme example, let’s say you feel yourself starting to slide on an icy sidewalk. Reacting quickly could be the difference between regaining your balance or falling and hitting your head. Exercise gives you a short-term and long-term boost in reaction times, especially exercises like agility drills or team sports.
new brain cells. Scientists have found that exercise promotes the formation of new brain cells, AKA neurogenesis. This is essential for cognitive function.
That’s reason enough to lace up your walking shoes, but there’s more! According to the NIH, “a rapidly growing literature strongly suggests that exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, can ameliorate cognitive impairment and reduce the risk of dementia.”
While it is true that several factors determine who among us will suffer from memory loss or dementia, and there is no guarantee that you will avoid it, several studies indicate that exercise can help in a way very specific.
The region of the brain involved in memory formation, the hippocampus, shrinks with age. It’s a normal part of the aging process, causing (or at least contributing to) an increased risk of dementia, forgetfulness, or memory loss. We’ve known for years that maintaining a level of fitness is associated with better cognitive ability and increased hippocampal size, but the NIH reports that until recently it wasn’t clear. whether exercise or better physical fitness would help people who, due to aging, had already experienced loss of hippocampal size.
A group of researchers randomly divided 120 sedentary older adults (without dementia) into two groups. One group was asked to do stretching and strength training. The other group was asked to spend 40 minutes, three days a week, walking around on a track. A year later, MRIs were performed on both groups and the results were convincing.
Participants who did stretch and resistance exercise experienced a decrease in hippocampal size of about 1.4%. On the other hand, those who walked for 40 minutes, three days a week, not only maintained their hippocampus size, but also experienced an average volume increase of 2%. The study also measured levels of a molecule known to be a factor in memory and learning (brain-derived neurotropic factor or BDNF) and found that increased hippocampal volume also meant increased increased amounts of BDNF.
Very good news! We can interpret these results to mean, or at least strongly suggest, that while a shrinking hippocampus later in life is inevitable, we can slow or even pause shrinkage with regular, moderate exercise for as little as a year.
Do you like the idea of becoming more active? You do not know where to start ?
Here are some ideas to make it easier for you:
Do what you like. Here’s some common sense: If you hate jogging, chances are you don’t run regularly. If you like pickleball, say, or a nice walk, do those instead. Exercise is only good for you if you actually do it. Also, shouldn’t we lean into the things that make us smile as much as possible?
Try Tai Chi. Tai Chi is a type of moving meditation known to decrease stress and anxiety while increasing flexibility and balance. It is an ancient Chinese form of exercise consisting of a series of movements performed with concentration, slowly. Deep, intentional breathing is part of the whole thing, and one pose elegantly blends into the next, so you’re always on the move. Many senior centers and gyms offer Tai Chi classes; it is also available online or on DVD.
Don’t do it all at once. If you want to walk for 40 minutes, for example, you can break it up into more manageable (and less intimidating) chunks. Walk 15 minutes in the morning, take a 10 minute walk in the middle of the day and enjoy a 15 minute walk after dinner. Or start with five minutes of walking three times a day and work your way up. Remember, no one is perfect and more movement is always better than less.
Go easy on your back. If you have back problems, consider swimming, recumbent cycling, or using a rowing machine with light resistance. Make sure your form is correct and you’ll be surprised how much fun a good sweat session can be.
Join a group. Exercise and socialization go together like peas and carrots. As well as being more fun, exercising with a group or fitness partner can provide motivation, responsibility, social connection and, especially important, an extra level of security for adults. who may benefit from more supervision during exercise. Silver Sneakers is a great option – over 60 insurance plans offer Silver Sneakers benefits in the form of free access to gym memberships, fitness classes and community events.
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