How to Keep Your Brain at Full Strength through Exercise

Friday, November 16, 2012

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A little physical activity goes a long way at maintaining the brain health of seniors.
Water aerobics class.

Keeping your mind busy with brain games such as Sudoku and crossword puzzles has been touted for years as the best way to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other degenerative brain diseases. But more recent research finds that regular exercise may be even more beneficial to maintaining cognitive health.

June Kloubec, PhD, a faculty member in Bastyr University’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Science, says as little as 20 minutes of physical activity three times a week could be enough to help seniors maintain their brain health.

“It’s amazing how just adding small exercises can result in such immense changes,” Dr. Kloubec says. Seniors who are relatively sedentary can reap big benefits from low-impact exercises such as:

  • Weightlifting and resistance training
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Dr. Kloubec adds that you can do these exercises while sitting if you are immobile or unsteady on your feet, then gradually increase the difficulty as you gain strength and stamina.

If you’re able-bodied, the next step is to add cardiovascular training to your workout, which she says appears even more likely to slow or even prevent cognitive decline. Examples include:

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Biking

Exercise Improves Brain Function at Every Age

Dr. Kloubec says it’s not only the elderly population whose cognition improves with a little physical activity.

“People in all age groups perform much better mentally after exercising,” she says. “Plus it’s a great stress-reliever because it frees your mind for a while and allows you to focus on your breathing and your body.”

Although Dr. Kloubec repeats guidelines from the American College of Sports Medicine that recommend 20 minutes of moderate exercise three times a week to maintain cardiovascular health, she says ideally people of all ages should aim for an hour each day. 

Tips to Start Exercising

If the idea of exercising for an hour a day – or even 20 minutes three times a week – makes you want to put the covers back over your head each morning, here are a few ways to help you get over the hump:

  • Find a workout buddy – If somebody is relying on you to join them at the gym or for that walk every morning, you’re more likely to get out of bed to do it. Having a buddy to commiserate with helps, too!
  • Eat balanced meals – Adding exercise to your daily regimen will likely boost your metabolism and your appetite. But make sure you’re adding the right foods to your diet: See the health tip “Whole Foods to Fuel Your Workout” by Bastyr University Dietetic Intern Angela Waco for ideas on what to eat before and after working out.
  • Have fun! – Think of ways to enjoy your daily workout. Maybe throwing a ball with your grandkids is a good place to start, or you could organize competitions with your peers to see who gains the most muscle or improves their speed the most.

Dr. Kloubec says many senior living communities have physical activity coordinators that can help set up a realistic exercise program for residents and also help gauge their progress.

“Geriatric fitness is an expanding field,” she says, adding that Bastyr’s exercise science and wellness programs are a great way to investigate the myriad career opportunities.

“In a growing number of senior residential communities, people want and need strong physical education programs,” Dr. Kloubec says.

To read more about exercising, check out our health tips or go to the National Institutes of Health's section on Senior Health, which shows you how to do exercises to improve strength, balance, flexibility and more.