The workout that de-ages your brain

By John James
Published June 16, 2020

Key Takeaways

Could aerobic exercise be the missing link in our wellness routines? Most people understand the positive effect exercise has on our health, but they might not know just how crucial aerobic movement is in keeping our bodies and minds sharp.

That perception could change, though. The revitalizing effects of aerobics on brain health are starting to surface. A new study, for example, paints a promising picture of how a few simple aerobic workouts per week can improve cognitive function.

And the benefits of aerobics, it turns out, go beyond any one area of medicine.

Aerobic exercise and brain function

Cognitive assessment and cerebrovascular function, both of which require extensive testing and assessment, are two aspects of brain health that can benefit from aerobic exercise, according to the new study, published in the American Academy of Neurology

Researchers examined 206 generally healthy, middle-aged, low-active adults (105 females; 101 males; mean age: 65.9 ± 6.4 years) who underwent a supervised 6-month aerobic exercise intervention to measure changes in brain function. Participants had no history of heart or memory problems, and underwent a variety of neuropsychological and physical tests before and after the intervention to assess cognitive domain, cerebrovascular function, and fitness capabilities. Prior to the intervention, participants worked out for ≤ 4 days a week at a moderate intensity for ≤ 30 minutes daily, or ≤ 2 days a week at a high intensity for ≤ 20 minutes a day.

The intervention initially consisted of a supervised 20-minute routine—in which participants warmed up, engaged in aerobic exercise, and cooled down—for 3 days a week. As time went on, though, the intensity and length of the routine grew. As participants progressed through the program, they increased their routines from an average of 20 minutes daily to ≥ 40 minutes. In addition to their supervised schedule, participants completed a self-run session on their own time, once per week. Each individual logged their work in journal entries throughout the course of the study.

The findings were clear: By the end of the study, executive functions, processing speed, and verbal memory improved by several units. Specifically, after 6 months of exercise, participants improved by about 6% on tests of mental flexibility and self-correction and by roughly 2% on verbal fluency, which measures how quickly you can retrieve information. The improvement in verbal fluency might not seem significant, but it’s actually what you’d expect to see in someone about 5 years younger, according to the researchers. Other cognitive functions, such as figural memory and complex attention, did not see the same upward trends, but researchers observed a general improvement in cognitive and cerebrovascular performance. 

Essentially, aerobic exercise de-aged the brain. It not only gets the blood moving through the body, but also pumps up blood to the brain regions responsible for thinking and memory. According to the researchers, before and after 6 months of aerobic exercise, participants’ blood flow rose, on average, from 51.3 cm/sec to 52.7 cm/sec—a nearly 3% increase. These modest improvements in blood flow, executive function, and verbal fluency are significant, considering that they usually decline with age. , 

In all, the findings spotlighted the positive effects of aerobic exercise on the brain health of older adults, raising questions about how else aerobic exercise might boost human health.

Effects on mental health

If aerobic exercise has a positive influence on brain functionality, it’s reasonable to wonder what that might mean for patients with mental illness. A study published in the European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience found that the effects of aerobic exercise can reduce the intensity of highly unpleasant symptoms in people with schizophrenia, the neuropsychiatric disease that often leads to neurobiological changes in patients’ brains and organs. Like in the prior study, researchers here found that patients who followed the prescribed aerobic exercise regimen saw improvements in cognition. The study used structural MRI to measure changes in the volumes of the hippocampus and cortical regions before and after endurance training. Researchers found that participants experienced a general increase in volume post-training. What’s more, participants also reported positive impacts on their quality of life. Aerobics improved global functioning, negative symptoms, and cognition, creating a more manageable experience for participants with the debilitating condition.

But, not every participant saw good results. Independent risk factors influenced the efficacy of aerobics on patients’ health. While the evidence suggests that aerobic exercise could help patients with schizophrenia to manage their illness, researchers called for further studies.

Other body systems and warding off illness

Let’s get physical. Studies suggest that aerobics has serious anti-aging effects on the body, mainly due to its ability to lower risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Taking the cake for the most common cause of death in the United States, CVD is linked with advancing age.

So, how can older adults reduce their chances of developing CVD? One study found adults who went on brisk walks every day for approximately 3 months experienced less arterial stiffness, an early indication of the disease. Cycling has also produced similar results. Muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) plays a part in the stiffening of central arteries—and aerobic exercise can effectively lower MSNA in older adults, thereby decreasing arterial stiffness and the risk of CVD.

Furthermore, aerobic exercise alleviates the energetic homeostasis associated with the formation of breast cancer. One study found that this type of physical movement prevents a certain energy-dense tissue from developing into cancer. Premenopausal women are especially at risk of developing breast cancer, and they can reduce that risk by incorporating aerobic exercises into their routines.

Wielding the powers of aerobic exercise

It doesn’t come as a surprise that aerobic exercise is beneficial to human health. What is exciting, however, are the anti-aging benefits of aerobics. By taking a brisk daily walk, older adults have the power to turn back time and partially restore what age has taken from their minds and bodies. Aerobic exercise provides patients with the ability to take their health, time, and quality of life into their own hands.

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