Exercise to improve brain function

As we age, we lose brain cells, a well-known fact of life. What isn’t as commonly known is that cognitive function/brain capacity is not a product of the number of brain cells (compare the thinking capacity of a 6 year old to the average 60 year old), but the connections those cells make with each other. Training the brain with regular activity of various kinds fosters increased connections.

The incidence of Alzheimers, and other forms of dementia, is on the rise. It is estimated that one in six adults over 65 will have dementia. Some early signs of brain degeneration include increased irritability, loss of arm swing with walking, loss of smell, and loss of interest in things that were previously enjoyable.

The brain requires good circulation (oxygen), a steady source of nutrition (even levels of blood sugar), and regular stimulation in order to be healthy. The family physician is a resource to help control blood pressure and attend to other issues that affect the supply of oxygen to the brain (eg: anemia or sleep apnea). Your diet makes a HUGE difference, as it will determine how well your brain receives a steady supply of glucose and other nutrients essential for health. A good rule of thumb is to work on eating 7 to 10 servings of different colorful vegetables daily. Avoid high sugar and/or heavy carbohydrate based eating. These cause glucose spikes in the blood, provoke insulin release and, very often, lead to insulin resistance, with all the cascade of negative effects associated with diabetes.

High intensity exercise is also important for brain health. Best done within 30 minutes of rising (unless you are someone who really has trouble getting up and going in the morning; consider doing this exercise just before lunch, if this is you), high intensity exercise means doing activity that raises your heart rate to a target maximum range (220 minus your age is the maximum. 70-100% of that maximum is the target range). Interval training is a good strategy, and safest way to start, with 1 minute of high intensity exercise, working as hard as you can, alternating with 90 seconds of lesser activity, 8 x, or for a goal of 15-20 minutes. Do this at least 6 days/week. Alternate the type of exercise (eg, bicycle one day, run the next, circuit training or jumping jacks next, then repeat) from one day to next, in order to train different muscles and reduce risk of overuse injury. Exercise intensity can be gradually increased, with eventual goal of high intensity exercise duration of 3- 5 minutes alternating with 90 seconds lesser intensity, 20 minutes daily, 6 days/week.

If you have been someone with low activity and/or low to moderate exercise levels until now, please see your family doctor before you start. Remember to honor where you are right now, and move into these exercise principles with respect for your body’s willingness to make changes with effort. Baby steps go a long way. Gradually increase the challenge. With these efforts, you can change the course of your brain’s function and your life.