No question: Working out builds biceps. Will it also build muscles in the brain? Or more precisely, enhance the connections that power thought and memory, particularly for seniors? Current research suggests an emphatic, Yes.
During the pandemic, when many were staying home and doing pretty much nothing even mildly athletic, a Wake Forest University School of Medicine study signed up 300 elders with mild cognitive impairment. Half were given aerobic exercises to rev up their hearts; the rest, mildly energizing stretch and balance moves. One year later, brain scans showed that both groups had avoided the kind of brain shrinkage linked to failing memory.
Comparing these folks to volunteers in another long-term study without exercise, lead scientist Laura Baker reached the obvious conclusion: “Exercise,” she told the assembled attendees at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, “needs to be part of the prevention strategies for seniors.”
Geraldine Poisnel of Inserm Research Center in Caen, France agrees. Her research with 134 volunteers in their late sixties with no memory problems showed that the most physically active people had higher levels of gray matter in their brains. Which convinced her to report this past April in the medical journal Neurology that “older adults who are physically active gain cardiovascular benefits, which may result in greater structural brain integrity.”
One month later a bunch of New York lab rats checked in with their own contribution to the question. Exercise increases levels of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which helps make new brain cells and repairs old one. It also triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone that improves learning and memory while protecting brain cells from damage.
When researchers at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine gave their mice one month’s unlimited access to either a freely rotating wheel or a locked one, the rodents on the spinning wheel increased their BDNF 60 percent and their dopamine 40 percent. Better yet, the dopamine stayed higher even after the little critters were allowed to rest for a week.
That’s good news for the mice, and possibly for humans with conditions such as Parkinson’s diseases or depression as well, says Harvard memory disorder expert Julie Brody Magid. “Cardio exercise has consistently proved to help protect the brain from cognitive decline and perhaps even improve cognitive functioning if issues arise.”
What exercises work? Practically anything you can think of. Hate lifting weights? The National Institutes of Health says carry your own grocery bag from store to car or cab or bus and then right into your kitchen. Not interested in push-ups? Do push-backs against a wall during the commercial breaks while you’re watching TV. Not a chance you’ll run a mile? Walk it. Get of the subway or bus one step before your stop and walk the rest of the way. If you’re able, use the stairs instead of the elevator. And don’t forget Fido. NIH says that on average, dog parents walk 22 minutes more every day than do people who don’t own a dog.
Whatever you choose, choose to do it about 2.5 hours every week. Not necessarily all at once. It’s okay to bow to the reality that some exercise every 24 hours is better than none.
Follow that rule and your brain cells will be doing their own push-ups.