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Published on: August 23, 2016
by Cedric X. Bryant, PhD. for U.S. News & World Report:
Perhaps you’re seeing the troubling first signs of memory issues and confusion, or maybe your family has a history of cognitive decline in older adulthood. If you’re among the many adults seriously concerned about brain health and cognitive function, you’re in luck: Research has proven that physical activity can actually improve brain health.
Of course, yogis, tai chi practitioners, qi gong devotees and even runners who’ve experienced a “runner’s high” have known for centuries that the mind and body are intricately linked. But now, the Global Council on Brain Health has evidence-based recommendations and action steps that can help any adults use physical activity to benefit their brains as they age.
One of the main conclusions of the consensus, stated simply, is that physical activity has a positive impact on brain health. (It is important to note, however, that there is not enough evidence to definitively state that physical activity can reduce the risk of brain diseases that cause dementia like Alzheimer’s disease.)
Because you have the ability to incorporate more physical activity into your routine – whether in the form of purposeful exercise or the adoption of a more physically active lifestyle – you can derive beneficial changes in brain structure and function, as well as decrease your risk of cognitive decline. Here’s how:
1. Start slow.
Whatever your age or current health, you can become more physically active. If you are currently leading a pretty inactive lifestyle, start with stretching and walking at a leisurely pace. If you already walk or jog on a regular basis, try increasing your speed or distance, or add resistance training or another type of exercise to your routine. The idea is to be persistent and challenge yourself to improve over time, remembering that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.
2. Find friends.
Many people thrive on the social benefits of group or partner activities. If you’re just starting a morning walking program, for example, ask friends and neighbors if they are interested in joining you. You may find yourself doing a better job of adhering to the routine if you know there is someone else counting on you showing up to keep him or her motivated – and this works both ways! Having a partner encourages consistency, which turns physical activity into a habit.
3. Mix it up.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate variety into your program. For example, if you already go to the gym a few days a week to get on the treadmill and do some light circuit training, consider adding a group fitness class to your schedule. Think about what types of physical activities you enjoy (or have enjoyed in the past) and find new ways to participate. Your long-term goal should be to create a balanced program that features cardiorespiratory exercise, strength training and stretching.
4. Sneak physical activity into your day.
In addition to “purposeful exercise,” identify how to incorporate physical activity into your life in way that doesn’t require setting time aside to exercise. For example, park in the far corner of parking lots in order to increase the number of steps you take per day. Take the stairs, go for a walk after dinner or during your lunch break, do some gardening or go dancing on the weekends, or walk your kids or grandkids to and from school each day. Different types of exercise seem to impact the brain in different ways, so be creative when finding ways to become or stay active.
And remember: Physical activity does not have to be purposeful and planned in order to be effective at improving brain health. In fact, a physically active lifestyle has proven to lower your risk of a cognitive decline, while more purposeful exercise tends to yield beneficial changes in brain structure and function. So don’t worry about finding the most intense form of cardio training or building muscular strength through lifting heavy weights. The idea is to find some activities you enjoy and then get out there and do them most days of the week. Your mind and body will undoubtedly reward you for the effort.
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