We know that regular exercise is beneficial to our physical health. However, new research has shown that it can also positively impact your brain and help it fight off Alzheimer’s.
According to a new study published in the journal Neurology, even small amounts of exercise, like 15 minutes of walking or other physical activities, have a notable effect on almost all regions of your brain, especially those involved in memory. The study further states that staying active benefits people over 70 the most, as they see a significant increase in grey matter.
“Our study results indicate that even small behavioral changes, such as walking 15 minutes a day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, may have a substantial positive effect on the brain and potentially counteract the age-related loss of brain matter and the development of neurodegenerative diseases,” says study author Dr. Ahmad Aziz from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in a media release. “In particular, older adults can already profit from modest increases of low-intensity physical activity.”
A 15-minute walk daily can improve your brain health
It’s estimated that by 2050, the number of dementia cases is set to triple. Currently, there’s no cure for dementia, but there are medicines and other treatments that can help with its symptoms. Exercise is known to be good for both the mind and body. This study, however, is the first one that has identified exactly how and where it affects the brain.
The study authors say that the brain is usually considered as a whole in previous research. Their motive was to take a more detailed look at the brain and understand which regions were impacted by physical activity the most.
The study found that physical activity boosts neurons across the brain, particularly the hippocampus – the region which controls memory. The data was collected from 2,550 participants aged 30 to 94 years old. To measure their physical activity, all participants were asked to wear an accelerometer on their upper thigh for seven days.
Additionally, they also underwent MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans that measured their brain volume and thickness of the outer brain layer, or cortex.
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The results showed that physical activity had a considerable impact on almost all brain regions —particularly in areas with large numbers of mitochondria which provide the body with energy.
Brain regions with a lot of mitochondria require a lot of oxygen and hence need extra blood flow. The study authors state that increased blood flow occurs during physical activity, which might be why these brain regions benefit from exercise.
The higher and more intense the physical activity, "the larger the brain regions were, either about volume or cortical thickness." They noticed this, particularly in the hippocampus, and explain that a larger brain volume is stronger against neurodegeneration than a smaller one.
However, the researchers note that the dimensions of the brain regions did not increase linearly with physical activity. They noticed that the largest, almost sudden, changes were observed in active older adults compared to their sedentary peers. Additionally, young and somewhat athletic participants who engaged in moderate physical activity also had a relatively high brain volume.
In even more active seniors, these regions were slightly larger. The more active you are, the greater the effect it will have on your brain. The researchers also searched gene databases to classify areas that profited most from physical activity.
Even modest physical activity can prevent neurodegenerative diseases
According to the researchers, their study results suggest that even small behavioral changes, such as walking 15 minutes a day or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, can help counteract the age-related loss of brain matter and the development of neurodegenerative diseases. Seniors can benefit the most from modest increases in low-intensity physical activity.
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Further analysis revealed that there is considerable overlap between genes activated by exercise and those impacted by Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or Huntington’s disease. The results offer a new explanation for why physical activity reduces the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
The study authors hope that their research provides a fresh impetus for people to become more physically active and helps promote brain health and prevent neurodegenerative diseases.
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