Have you noticed little lapses in your memory as you're getting older? (What did I walk into this room for? Where did I put those car keys?) Is it getting harder to remember names and dates, or to stay focused on one train of thought? (What was I saying?) Could it be you're not getting enough exercise? We now know that physical fitness isn't just for good for looking good naked, but it's also great for your brain. A growing body of research over the last decade suggests exercise benefits brain function in people of various ages, young and old.
Until 2003, scientists knew that rodents who hit their exercise wheels had better brain function than their couch potato lab buddies. But then, a couple of studies found that this was also true for humans. Results published in the February 2003 Journal of Gerontology showed that physically fit older adults had less age-related brain-tissue shrinkage than those who were less active subjects.
Then in 2006, Charles H. Hillman, professor of kinesiology and of community health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published a study suggesting, "physical activity may be beneficial to cognition during early and middle periods of the human lifespan and may continue to protect against age-related loss of cognitive function during older adulthood." Cognition, by the way, includes mental processes such as intuition, judgment, language, remembering and the ability to learn new things.
A more recent review of studies from the Netherlands found that regular aerobic exercise gives older adults a boost in brainpower as well as the obvious bump in cardiovascular fitness
The lead author, Maaike Angevaren, said, "aerobic physical exercises that improve cardiovascular fitness also help boost cognitive processing speed, motor function and visual and auditory attention in healthy older people." Although 50 may seem like the new 40 nowadays, even healthy adults around the half-century mark begin to experience mild cognitive declines like memory lapses and attention span deficits. So Angevaren and her colleagues evaluated 11 studies comprised of approximately 670 adults aged 55 and up what the effects of aerobic exercise had on things like cognitive processing speed, memory and ability to pay attention. The evidence showed that, compared to a group of non-exercising adults or adults in a yoga- or strength-based program, regular aerobic exercise leads to healthy aging and that improved cardiorespiratory fitness goes hand in hand with improved cognitive function, particularly motor function, the brain's processing speed (cognitive function) and the ability to pay auditory and visual attention to things. Are you still with me?
If you're still following this, It's not hard to understand. According to the study, sustained aerobic exercise (of say, 30 minutes or longer), at a reasonable training heart rate (breaking some sweat), speeds delivery of oxygen to the brain causing increased brain metabolism, which then stimulates the production of neurotransmitters and new synapses. Plus, improving cardiovascular fitness can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease which has been proven to negatively affect brain function.
Health experts agree that exercising, eating a healthy diet, not smoking and limiting alcohol intake reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes as well as the risk for age-related neurogenative disorders. For people who have diabetes, there's a 65% higher risk of developing dementia. But what's really something to think about is, being overweight and having diseases related to being fat, puts us at greater risk of developing Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia.
Perhaps Hillman said it best, "physical activity is related to better cognitive health and effective functioning across the lifespan." In the end, it's never too early to start taking your mind and physical fitness to heart. If you can remember just one thing I've written here, remember: what's good for your body is good for your brain.
The only question I have is, with all the working out I do, how come I'm not a Rhodes scholar by now?