IT IS NO secret that physical activity, especially the aerobic kind, is good for the heart, lungs, bones, and joints. Less well-known are exercise’s benefits for the brain, which are still coming to light.
“The effect of exercise on brain health is an exciting area of study that has only emerged in the past decade or so,” says Ashley Kren, CCRP, Exercise Specialist at HSHS St. Joseph’s Hospital. “What studies have shown is that in the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, the brain forms new neurons and neural connections in response to regular exercise. That can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.”
A study published this year in Neurology, the journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that exercising earlier in life can buttress the brain against decline later. Only 5 percent of women whose physical fitness was high during middle age went on to develop dementia, compared with 25 percent of moderately fit women and 32 percent of less active women. The most fit women were 88 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with moderate fitness.
Kren offers these suggestions for fitting the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic exercise into your busy week:
• Find your fun. You are more likely to stick with a particular form of exercise if you enjoy it.
• Gauge the impact. If joint pain is a problem, pick a low-impact aerobic activity, such as walking, stationary cycling, or using an elliptical machine.
• Take it in tens. Exercise in 10-minute increments instead of long stretches.
• Be sure to warm up. “You want to give the muscles, joints, heart, and brain time to get accustomed to the demand you’re about to place on them,” Kren says. “A five to 10 minute warmup gets your brain and body in sync and ready to work.”