As with all lifestyle interventions, the earlier you start incorporating regular exercise into your day the better, but it is never too late to start.
With age, there may be physical conditions that impact on exercise capacity – pain, stroke, heart disease and the like – but health practitioners such as your local GP, a physiotherapist or an exercise physiologist can usually still find ways for you to safely remain active.
Regular physical activity is probably one of the most potent weapons we have against cognitive decline. Studies suggest that it helps the brain in a number of ways and reduces the risk of developing dementia.
It may also help slow the rate of decline after dementia has set in, though more research is required to be sure of this latter finding. Even if it doesn’t alter the course of dementia, it provides a number of other benefits including better mental health, improved energy and better sleep.
So, how does it help? Well, there are two broad mechanisms.
The first is through improving vascular health, meaning that we get better blood flow to the brain. The oxygen the blood carries as well as the nutrients it contains are better able to nourish the brain.
The second is by increasing the levels of molecules that directly help in brain growth and maintenance. One in particular, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), has been shown to increase with exercise and this increase has been associated with reduced shrinkage, and possibly even growth, of critical brain structures.
Current Australian guidelines suggest exercising for at least 30 minutes most days a week (preferably all) at a moderate intensity. This means at a level where you can talk but not sing!
Variety is also important – it is best to include aerobic exercise and resistance training. Aerobic activities include brisk walking, jogging, swimming and cycling. Resistance training means using your own body weight or other weights to promote muscle growth.
I also encourage patients to have short periods of higher intensity exercise built into the regimen (as long as it is medically safe of course): there seems to be an especial benefit from this extra effort.
There is also evidence to suggest that exercise in the company of others gives your brain more of a boost than exercising alone. This may be because of the social connection, which is good for the brain itself, though also perhaps you may push yourself that little bit harder with others around.
Then there is incidental exercise – all the physical activity we engage in where the exercise is a by-product. This could be walking to the coffee shop, gardening, or simply moving around the house.
We spend much more time potentially doing this than prescribed exercise and it all helps.
For those unaccustomed to exercise, it can seem a little daunting but there are a couple of things that can put and keep you on track.
Firstly, it is probably fair to say that more benefit is to be had going from none to a little exercise than from a moderate to a high amount, so don’t worry about hitting the ideal target straight away.
Secondly, there are strategies that can help get and keep you going. An accountabili-buddy can be very helpful – ideally a friend or family member who exercises with you and who will be let down if you decide to pull out!
Having fitness goals is also very motivating – make them clear, measurable and achievable.
Keep moving – your brain will thank you for it!