people walking exercising

Did you know that since 2012, September has been known as World Alzheimer’s Month? Many organizations worldwide promote education and awareness on a variety of Alzheimer’s disease issues, found at worldalzmonth.org. Some of these organizations’ main goals are to increase education about risk reduction and behavior.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2021 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, nearly six million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, and by 2050, this number is projected to reach almost 14 million. It turns out that one primary behavior everyone can do to maintain healthy brain function and help reduce cognitive decline is frequent exercise.

Research from meta-analysis review article “Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission,” by G. Livingston, et al., has shown that regular exercise helps the brain in several ways.

First, exercise helps decrease damage from plaque, vascular problems or inflammation. These three conditions can impair blood flow carrying nutrients and oxygen to the brain. Frequent exercise also helps prevent or reduce other diseases that can cause the same brain problems: midlife obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. Additionally, regular exercise can increase and help maintain healthy brain cells needed for thinking and memory, also known as cognition. Scientists believe both mechanisms are crucial for the goal of preventing dementia.

Over the past five years, many observational and, better yet, randomized controlled trials, have been published. In the Livingston article, they found that “sustained exercise in midlife (ages 45-65), and possibly later life (>65), protects from dementia, perhaps through decreasing obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular risk.” The consensus is that for ages 45-65, exercise (breaking a sweat) at a minimum of once weekly lowers dementia risk, as summarized by 2018 research, “Midlife physical activity, psychological distress, and dementia risk: the HUNT study,” by E. Zotcheva, et al.

Evidence cited in the 2018 Second Edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, shows that exercise can decrease pain for those with osteoarthritis, reduce disease progression for hypertension and type 2 diabetes, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, and improve cognition for those with dementia.

Break a Sweat for the Brain

The most studied and thus recommended type of exercise in brain health research is one that “breaks a sweat,” or aerobic exercise. As breathing and heart rate increase, it strengthens the heart muscle with extra nutrients and oxygen. It also improves lung and blood vessel functioning, making it easier for all parts of your body, especially your brain, to perform better. According to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, brisk walking, jogging, running, dancing, biking, swimming, jump-roping, and rowing are all examples of aerobic exercise.

Sadly, only 22% of American men ages 18 and above and 18% of women ages 18 and above met the guidelines for Americans between 2008 and 2016. These guidelines were defined as at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week, or an equivalent combination. Meeting the muscle-strengthening component is defined as reporting muscle-strengthening activities at least two days per week. Even high school students are not faring well. From 2011-2015, boys averaged 30% and girls averaged only 12% in meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

However, according to the guidelines, the good news is that even one session of physical activity immediately reduces blood pressure, improves insulin sensitivity, sleep and cognition, and reduces anxiety and stress levels. These improvements grow with increased physical activity. Within days to weeks of regular physical activity, disease risk reduction and improved physical functioning occur.

This means that if you have diabetes, exercise helps lower your blood glucose values. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, both major risk factors for heart disease, they can be maintained at a lower level with exercise. If you have obesity or want to lose weight, exercise helps you move more easily and lose weight. Exercise helps prevent future weight gain as you age. If you have osteoarthritis, physical activity may enable you to move with less pain and more ease. Your ability to think, reason and remember (cognition), improves with exercise. Your ability to fall asleep and sleep quality is enhanced.

For more information on ways to increase your exercise and improve your brain health, check the many Penn State Extension programs listed on our website, found at extension.psu.edu. One example is our Everybody Walk Across Pennsylvania program, which is highlighting World Alzheimer’s Month when it kicks off again this September. The LIFT (Lifelong Improvements through Fitness Together) program is a strength-training and nutrition education program offered by Penn State Extension as in-person classes throughout the state. We also offer Healthy Living for Your Brain and Body, an excellent Alzheimer’s Association program, as well as others, found at https://extension.psu.edu/alzheimers-workshops.

Lynn James is a Penn State Extension senior educator in Adams County.

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