The Cassia Life

Exercise Strengthens The Brain, Too

The Cassia Life
By Jesse Watkins, Cassia’s own resident blogger

The newspaper headline seemed to jump up from the page.  Apparently my 20-minute workouts have not been just beefing up my heart muscles, strengthening my legs and arms, and improving my breathing. My brain has been receiving major benefits as well. 

Such a deal! Working out has been worth the time and trouble for just the physical returns. But now, while the returns to brain health have been there all along, they feel like icing has just now been added to the cake.  

Not only that, the brain benefits of exercise comes to seniors even more significantly than to younger folks, and it is not necessary to work full speed to gain the returns. A brisk walk gets you much of the gain.  

Steve Ireland, 69 and a resident of Augustana Apartments in downtown Minneapolis, can testify to the physical and mental values of regular walking.  His walking does not reach the break-a-sweat exertion level, however he walks about  two miles indoors daily.  He doesn’t think in detail about technique.  “I walk at a moderate speed, try not to miss days,” he explains, adding his reasons for the workouts: “I like to keep myself fit. It’s a package deal, if you don’t use it you lose it.”  

As to keeping his brain fit by walking, Steve remarked, “Otherwise the brain turns to mush.”

So what precisely does happen during exercise to impact the brain? I talked by telephone with Dr. Judy Cameron, professor of Psychiatry and Director of Science Outlook, at the University of Pittsburg. “Primarily, exercise increases blood flow and therefore increases oxygen to the brain,” said Dr. Cameron. “So the cells have more nutrients, more fuel, to operate.” 

Exercise also activates neuroprotective genes that do just that—help protect brain cells from damage. Working out also helps produce new neurons and cells for some parts of the brain, said Dr. Cameron.

Research shows that exercise also can help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. 

Checking in with fitness coordinator Lola Panschar, the scheduled exercise class leader at Augustana, on the idea that exercise improves the brain, she excitedly endorsed the concept. She then turned to her workout class waiting to begin their session and asked for opinions.  Most class members indicated agreement.

According to a 2017 article in The  New York Times, social dancing, especially country, may be the best “exercise” of it all for strengthening the brain. A study compared the neurological effects of country style dancing with the effect that walking and other activities have. Results suggest that there may be something unique about learning social dance, such as demands on mind and body.

Dr. Cameron urges seniors generally to take advantage of the known connection of exercise and the brain, and to “get out there.”  No need to work up a sweat, if you just move more it will be good for your brain.

“It is an incredibly positive message to bring to seniors.”