Dec 12

Get Your Head in the Game: Exercise is Good for Your Brain.

Debbie Hatch  |  Family & F.I.T.

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I’m not a neuroscientist, and I don’t play one on the internet.



But I do love reading studies about, and learning as much as I can about, the brain.


That little 3-pound globule that holds residence inside our skull and runs everything we do.


It really interests me.


It makes me think.  Literally, but also about the tool itself.


How does it develop?  How does it work? How is it affected by trauma?


Specifically, I’ve been wondering how the brain is impacted by aging and whether or not, as we age, we can impact IT.


I mean, we’re getting older.  Each of us.  Every day.


I remember my children telling their friends, “My mom is 25!!!!!”  Like it was amazing that humans could actually live that long.  At one point, I remember thinking 30 was really old.  I remember friends telling me, as I approached 40, “You’re going to have to start slowing down now.”


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Maybe it was as a means to thumb my nose at all of that.

Maybe it was a staunch refusal to be a “statistic”.

Maybe it was a “mid-life crisis”.

Maybe it was merely that I finally reached a place in my life where I had more expendable time.


Whatever the reason, I actually started to become healthier in my 30s and 40s.


I quit smoking.

I quit partying to excess.




I started exercising:  lifting weights, running 5Ks, 10Ks, and obstacle courses, boxing, and doing yoga despite an incredibly challenging travel schedule.


I competed in three figure competitions when I was 47, and two more when I was 50.



I’m not alone.  A lot of people are getting healthier as they age.

Not just to move better.

Certainly not just to look better.

But to LIVE better.


We know – I mean there’s no debate about this, is there?

We all know that exercise and a decent diet are good for us, physically.

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We know that the combination helps prevent excess weight gain, or maintain weight loss.  It helps regulate blood pressure, decreases risk of cardiovascular diseases, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, and arthritis.  Exercise improves mood and boosts energy.


What I want to focus on is something you might not know. I’ve been devouring books and research papers since I’ve been home for the last few weeks.  I want to talk about the link between our brains, aging, and exercise.


Why should you care?


Because, like me, you’re fortunate enough to be getting older too!


Did you know that Alzheimer’s disease, a degenerative brain disease, is the most common cause of dementia – a very real concern as we age?

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A lot of people like to joke about it but, if you’ve ever seen its real-life effects, you know it’s no joking matter.  When I was 18 and 19, I worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant on the Alzheimer’s ward of a nursing home.  It was – without question – one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.


To watch what that disease does, as it rips away memory, language, problem-solving and basic cognitive skills used in everyday activities, not only to the person with the illness, but to the entire family, is heart-wrenching.


Much (much, much) more study needs to be done, through epigenetics and the like, to determine causes and potential cures for Alzheimer’s.  That said, per the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2015 Facts and Figures Report, there is a growing body of evidence that brain health is closely link to cardio-vascular health.

I don’t find that surprising.

Every organ, including the brain needs oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to function optimally.  It gets that from a healthy circulatory system.


That means, factors that protect our heart and blood vessels:

Physical activity

A diet lower in saturated fats

Eating more fruits and vegetables

Are the same things that protect the brain!

Research has proven that even moderate exercise, such as walking for 40 minutes three times a week, can combat decline in function associated with aging and increase performance on cognitive tasks.

Carl Cotman, the founding director of The Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia, concurs.  “Exercise mobilizes the molecular machinery to improve brain health and cognition.  It increases metabolism in the brain and generally makes brain cells healthier.  It even helps clear out Alzheimer’s pathology in mouse models.”


Neuroscientists at Columbia University have provided evidence that “a structured exercise program increases neurogenesis – the birth and development of new nerve cells – in a memory hub of the brain.”  Not only does exercise preserve our brains, it actually allows us to create new nerve cells!


Art Kramer, who ranks among the top 1% among researchers in Psychiatry and Psychology, and whose research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, focuses on the cognitive benefits of exercise, says, “There is certainly increasing research that suggest physical activity and exercise will protect your mind and brain throughout your lifetime. Not only is fitness a good way to reduce the risk of many chronic diseases, but it also is a means to enhance memory decision making, and the brain circuits that underlie them.”



Although more research needs to be done, I am incredibly excited about the things we’re learning now.  Physical activity and a healthier diet make a difference.

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And, both of these are things within our control.

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