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We often think of exercising for the sake of our bodies, but a new study reveals exercise also has huge benefits for the brain.
What is the study?
This review uses existing data from 39 studies, and is the largest ever analysis of the link between exercise and cognitive function1. The study assessed a number of types of exercise, from running, cycling and swimming (aerobic) to strength training, and weight lifting (anaerobic), and things like yoga and tai chi, which combines both types.
It also looked at things like intensity (low, moderate and high), duration (45-60 minute sessions, as well as shorter or longer sessions), frequency (the number of exercise sessions per week), and the length of exercise regimes (number of weeks).
What did it find?
All types of exercise that were included in the study, except yoga, showed a positive effect on cognitive function. Moreover, the benefits from aerobic and aerobic exercise were very similar, suggesting that both types are important to maintain a healthy brain. The results indicate that intensity, rather than the type of exercise, is significant. For instance, running or cycling were both beneficial at a moderate or high intensity.
Low intensity exercise didn’t provide the same benefits. Tai chi also found to be beneficial, though only from four of the 39 studies. The encouraging thing however is that it may well be helpful for those who are less mobile, and can't manage more strenuous exercise. The researchers concluded that a duration of 45-60 minutes gave the best results on cognitive function, which covers cerebral activities such as memory skills.
They also suggested sessions should be done on as many days of the week as possible, though further research would point to more specific, optimal number of sessions. Interestingly, the benefits found were irrespective of brain health - at the start of the study: even those with mild cognitive decline were still likely to show improvement.
Why does exercise help?
Scientists think that exercise improves the brain’s health, because it boosts blood flow. This provides more oxygen and nutrients, keeping nerve cells (neurons) in good health, and preventing inflammation and damage. They also think this increased blood flow to the brain boosts a growth hormone which helps the formation of new neurons, and the connections between them.2
What exercise should I do for a healthy brain?
The study found that sessions between 45 and 60 minutes had a positive effect on cognitive function. The current UK guidelines for adults are to exercise in at least one of the following ways:
- 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or cycling. In addition, on at least two days per week, doing strength exercises for the major muscles: legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms
- 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, such as running or squash, as well as strength exercises on at least two days per week
- A balance of vigorous and moderate aerobic exercise, plus strength exercise on two or more days per week. As a way of calculating this mix, 30 minutes of vigorous exercise would count as 60 minutes of moderate exercise. So, in one week, a 45-minute run, and a brisk 60-minute walk, would be the same as 150 minutes of moderate exercise
What else can I do?
Other than exercise, there are a number of ways to reduce your risk of dementia:
- Eat well: a healthy, balanced diet - including fresh fruit and vegetables, whole foods, and a low sugar intake - is highly recommended to maintain a healthy brain and body function
- Maintain a healthy weight: a benefit in itself, this will also make it easier to maintain good mobility - and therefore, regular exercise - throughout your life
- Drink alcohol only in moderation: Keep within the recommended guidelines for alcohol intake; this may lower your risk
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