Keeping Your Brain Young and Healthy

I don’t think it will shock anyone if I tell you that physical activity is good for you. I’m stating the obvious, right? In spite of this universal knowledge, you may not be able to describe yourself as a physically active person. If this is the case, you’re not alone. About three in four American adults don’t get the recommended amount of daily physical activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, many adults don’t get any activity at all, aside from what they need to make it through the day.

While you most likely know that long-term inactivity can weaken your bones and muscles, you may not realize that it can damage your brain, too. This damage, in turn, raises your odds of cognitive decline and even dementia. Fortunately, getting exercise can help keep your brain healthy and delay or prevent cognitive problems.

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Exercise is shown to improve cognition, which includes better memory, attention, and something called the executive function– which includes things like controlling your emotions and completing tasks. It can rev up the speed with which you process and react to information, as well as your ability to draw from your past knowledge and experiences. Getting physical is also linked to slower age-related mental decline, where we gradually lose our thinking, focus, and memory skills.

So how does exercise do all this? Scientists aren’t completely sure. It’s believed that working out improves blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, helping it function better. Some research has shown that physical activity prevents shrinking of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain necessary for learning and remembering things. Scientists also believe that exercise stimulates chemical activity in the brain, which can contribute to better cognition.

If you aren’t a spring chicken, you may wonder if it’s too late to protect your brain function through exercise. The answer is a resounding NO. No matter our age, pretty much all of us can gain from physical activity. It’s never too late to start, although if you have a limiting health condition you should consult with your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine.

What if you are like me and not really a “gym rat”? That’s okay! Cardio activities like walking, biking, swimming, bowling, gardening, and dancing are perfectly fine to exercise options. Just try for an average of about 25 minutes per day of moderate activity. Just 25 minutes! That’s not much when you consider the benefits to your brain. It also helps to add a little strength training and flexibility (stretching) activities to your day.

We all enjoy a little bit of couch and TV time, but you should think about whether planting yourself on the sofa is worth jeopardizing your brain health. You can start small, keeping in mind that any exertion is better than none. If you like where your brain is right now, it’s a good idea to get moving because that just may help you retain that razor-sharp edge!