Physical activity has been shown, time and again, to prevent and treat cognitive decline. Exercise of any kind is beneficial for weight management, strength and agility, increased circulation and blood flow to the brain, detoxification, improved mood, reduced inflammation, better blood sugar control, and more. All of these benefits can directly or indirectly influence the health and function of the brain!
1. Preventing Cognitive Decline
Regular physical activity of three or more times a week has been shown to reduce one’s risk of developing AD up to 45%!
Moreover, exercise is dose-dependent, meaning the higher the dose, the more protection the person has against developing cognitive impairment. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the areas of the brain that are most affected by AD such as the hippocampus and prefrontal and temporal regions within the brain. In healthy adults, moderately intense aerobic activity 3 times a week can not only increase the size of the hippocampus but also has been shown to increase the brain-building protein, BDNF.
2. Treating Cognitive Decline
For those already suffering cognitive impairment or AD, the science is just as strong! Exercise slows the progression of decline while increasing cognitive and motor function. The benefits of exercise for patients with AD include
- improved strength
- aerobic capacity
Moreover, exercise reduces one’s risk of falling. To add to the benefits, exercise is also known to reduce depression, a common condition associated with AD.
This means that by increasing exercise, you have the power to increase your body’s ability to repair and protect brain tissue.
This makes physical activity a valuable treatment for the health and restoration of the brain.
3. Physical Activity for Prevention and Treatment
The type, duration, and regularity of exercise will largely be dependent on each person’s current state of health. However, it is important to know that the benefits mentioned above were the result of an average exercise routine for 30-60 minutes, 3-4 times per week. For many, this was achieved by walking at a brisk pace, cycling, or swimming. The aim is to increase heart rate to 60-75% of maximum heart rate for an extended period on a regular basis.
High-intensity interval training has proven to be extremely effective for brain health. This type of physical training involves reaching maximum heart rate for 1 minute and then resting for 1 minute, alternating back and forth for 15 minutes. This can easily and safely be achieved on a stationary bike and should be repeated 4-5 times a week.
For my patients who have a history of cardiovascular disease including stroke, I suggest avoiding max heart rate and reaching optimal heart rate instead.
For patients in this situation, beginning with 5 minutes per session, and working up from there is best.
While higher intensity exercise produces great results, it may not be realistic for every patient depending on age, conditioning, and the progression of the disease. The important takeaway from this information is that every person needs to be active and should increase his or her heart rate regularly to see the benefits of physical activity for the brain. Creating an exercise routine with my patients that fits their situation is an imperative aspect of treatment because the benefits are all-encompassing within the body and brain. I encourage my patients to find realistic activities they really enjoy doing, often with a companion, which helps them create consistency and maintain motivation.