June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, an important time to highlight the impact that exercise has on cognitive health. Research consistently shows that physical activity not only benefits our bodies but also plays a vital role in maintaining and improving brain health, potentially lowering the risk of cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.

The Connection Between Physical Activity and Cognitive Health

Engaging in regular physical activity is an effective way to boost brain health. Exercise has been shown to enhance cognitive functions such as memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. It stimulates the release of neurotrophic factors, proteins that support the growth, survival, and differentiation of neurons, which are essential for learning and memory.

Studies have found that physical activity in midlife is associated with a lower risk of cognitive impairment later in life. This study followed participants for over two decades and concluded that those who were more physically active had a significantly lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Increases in physical activity have also been associated with a 31% lower risk of dementia.

How Exercise Affects the Brain

Increased Blood Flow to the Brain

Physical activity increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen and nutrients to the brain. This enhanced blood flow improves brain function and promotes the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, which can help mitigate age-related cognitive decline.

Growth Factors and Brain Cell Growth

According to Harvard Medical School: Exercise stimulates physiological changes in the body, encouraging production of growth factors — chemicals that affect the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance, survival, and overall health of new brain cells. 

Reduction of Inflammation and Oxidative Stress

Chronic inflammation and oxidative stress are linked to cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Regular physical activity helps reduce these harmful processes. Exercise can reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, potentially slowing the progression of neurodegenerative diseases.

Enhanced Synaptic Plasticity

Synaptic plasticity is the ability of synapses (the connections between neurons) to strengthen or weaken over time, which is vital for learning and memory. Exercise has been shown to enhance synaptic plasticity, making the brain more adaptable and resilient to age-related changes.

Recommendations for Incorporating Physical Activity

To maximize the cognitive benefits of exercise, it’s important to engage in a variety of physical activities that challenge both the body and the brain. Here are some recommendations:

  • Aerobic Exercise: Activities such as walking, running, cycling, and swimming increase heart rate and improve cardiovascular health, which in turn benefits brain health. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, as recommended by the World Health Organization.
  • Strength Training: Incorporating resistance exercises helps build muscle strength, which supports overall mobility and balance. Strength training has also been associated with improvements in cognitive function.
  • Balance and Flexibility Exercises: Activities like yoga and tai chi improve balance, flexibility, and coordination. These exercises can reduce the risk of falls and enhance overall brain health through mindful movements and deep breathing.
  • Mental Stimulation: Combining physical activity with mental challenges, such as dancing, playing sports, or participating in group exercise classes, can provide additional cognitive benefits by engaging different parts of the brain simultaneously.

Commit to Your Brain Health 

During this Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month, commit to cognitive health! By incorporating a mix of aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercises into your exercise routine, you can not only improve your physical well-being but also protect your brain against cognitive decline. Contact Bodyworks Physical Therapy or call (701) 893-2639  to request an appointment. Our experienced team of physical therapists can provide insight on how to incorporate exercises into your routine that will work best for you to improve your brain health!