Physical and Cognitive Exercises: Keeping Your Brain Healthy and Flexible
Our brains suffer the same damage as the rest of our tissues as we age. It’s so common that we make jokes about walking into a room and forgetting why, or losing our keys…while we are holding them. While these are mild effects, we lose even more brain function as we get older, forgetting skills, losing patience and dexterity, and in many cases, becoming more isolated because we can’t remember our friends or the things we used to enjoy doing.
It’s a bleak picture, but there’s quite a lot we can do to avoid or lessen this fate. Cognitive decline is neither random nor inevitable, not even for those who have the genetic predisposition to suffer cognitive challenges.
We’re going to discuss why we lose cognition as we get older, things we might be doing now to damage brain function, and what exercises we can do to slow, or even reverse, the damage. We’ll focus on the most practical ways you can take action on so you and your loved ones can enjoy better brain health for many more years without waiting for breakthroughs that may take decades to filter into public availability.
Why We Lose Cognition as We Grow Older
Aging entails an array of complex biological processes, many of which manifest as a decline in cognitive abilities. The brain, while remarkably resilient, is not impervious to the ravages of time. Neurobiological alterations play a significant role in this decline. For instance, with age, there is a noticeable reduction in the volume of gray matter, particularly in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, regions associated with executive function and memory, respectively. This volumetric reduction is often attributed to neuronal loss and shrinkage.
Synaptic plasticity—the brain's ability to form new neural connections—also tends to diminish with age. Neurotransmitter levels, essential for communication between neurons, experience a decline, affecting cognitive speed and memory recall. Similarly, the brain's vascular system undergoes changes, often resulting in reduced blood flow. Inadequate blood flow can compromise the supply of essential nutrients and oxygen to the brain, further affecting cognitive function.
Inflammation, also called inflamm-aging because of the interplay of advancing age and inflammatory damage, is another factor often associated with cognitive decline. As we age, the body's ability to regulate inflammation lessens, leading to systemic inflammation that can affect brain health. Recent research suggests that chronic inflammation may compromise the blood-brain barrier, making the brain more susceptible to toxins and other harmful substances circulating in the blood.
Hormonal changes, notably in cortisol and insulin, can also contribute. Elevated cortisol levels over long periods can impair cognitive abilities, while insulin resistance can interfere with the brain's ability to uptake glucose thus affecting cognition.
Moreover, age-related decline is not solely the result of biological factors. Lifestyle choices and environmental factors contribute as well. Reduced physical and mental activity, poor dietary choices, and increased stress—all common in aging (and younger) populations—can accelerate cognitive decline.
Things Many People Do That Negatively Impact Cognition Without Realizing It
While aging is a natural process, certain behaviors and lifestyle choices can hasten cognitive decline. One of the most prevalent yet overlooked factors is chronic stress. Long-term stress triggers sustained cortisol release, which, as previously mentioned, can impair cognitive functions like memory and attention. People often underestimate the cognitive toll of chronic stress, attributing their lapses to "just getting older."
Nutritional choices also have a profound impact on cognitive health. Diets high in processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy fats can promote systemic inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which have been linked to cognitive decline. Yet, many continue to consume such foods, unaware of their long-term impact on brain health.
Lack of regular physical activity is another common behavior that negatively affects cognition. Exercise is known for its multitude of benefits on the brain, including increased blood flow, enhanced mood, and reduced inflammation. A sedentary lifestyle deprives the brain of these benefits, paving the way for cognitive decline.
Additionally, sleep deprivation is an often-overlooked factor that can have significant adverse effects on cognition. Adequate sleep is essential for memory consolidation and clearing brain waste, among other functions. The normalization of short sleep durations in modern society overlooks the necessity of proper rest for optimal brain function.
Lastly, excessive consumption of alcohol and the habitual use of recreational drugs can have a detrimental impact. While moderate alcohol is now being considered detrimental over long-held views that an occasional drink could have benefits, excess intake has been shown to lead to more severe cognitive impairments. The same goes for recreational drugs, which can have various negative effects on cognitive health.
By recognizing and rectifying these behaviors early, one can significantly mitigate their impact, preserving cognitive function for a more extended period.
The Impact of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Health
The Direct and Indirect Benefits
Physical activity is not only beneficial for our overall physical health, but it also has a significant impact on our cognitive health. Our brains are part of our bodies, after all. This impact operates through both direct and indirect means.
Directly, exercise can reduce insulin resistance, lower inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.
Indirectly, physical activity can improve mood, enhance sleep quality, and reduce stress and feelings of overwhelm. These aspects often contribute to cognitive impairment, even in younger people. Therefore, addressing them can greatly boost cognitive health, and it’s never too early or too late to start.
Aerobic Exercise and Brain Health
Historically, aerobic exercise (think cardio) was the first form of physical activity explored in relation to cognitive function. This is primarily because aerobic exercise involves high energy expenditure, making it easy to measure its effect on other bodily systems, such as the brain.
Multiple research studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can boost the size of the hippocampus—the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. This is a significant finding given the increasing prevalence of severe cognitive decline worldwide.
Strength Training and Cognitive Health
Following aerobic exercise, strength training was the next form of exercise to be explored in relation to cognitive function. Strength training exercises, often known as resistance exercises, have been found to significantly improve executive functions—mental skills that are important for managing time, paying attention, switching focus, planning and organizing, remembering details, and making decisions.
Motor or Neuromuscular Activities for Cognitive Health
Motor activities, which include balance and coordination exercises, engage high neuromuscular demands and relatively low metabolic demands. They require perceptual and higher-level cognitive processes, such as attention, and have been found to stimulate changes in information processing, particularly in the ability to handle visual and spatial information.
Some specific motor activities such as yoga, Tai Chi, and quiet dances require higher neuromuscular effort compared to simple balance and coordination activities and are particularly beneficial for brain health. Many methods of mobility training now available also fit into this category, and include novel ways of moving that many could find both interesting and beneficial.
The Role of Dual-Task Activities
Dual-task activities, which involve the simultaneous performance of two tasks, are particularly adventageous for cognitive health. These activities may include a combination of motor-cognitive tasks, physical and cognitive activities, or two motor tasks. Engaging in dual-task activities not only improves physical and motor fitness but also enhances cognitive functioning.
Physical vs. Motor Activities: Which One is Better for Cognitive Health?
When it comes to choosing between physical and motor activities for cognitive health, it's not a matter of one being better than the other. Both types of activities have their unique benefits and can significantly improve cognitive health.
Physical activities like aerobic exercise and strength training are beneficial for cardiovascular fitness and can aid the efficiency with which oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the brain. This increased oxygenation provides energy for neuronal activity, which benefits cognition.
On the other hand, motor activities like balance and coordination exercises stimulate changes in information processing and require perceptual and higher-level cognitive processes, which enhance cognitive health.
Maintaining a Physically and Mentally Active Lifestyle
Regardless of the type of exercise, the most important factor is maintaining a physically and mentally active lifestyle. Engaging in regular physical and cognitive exercises can greatly prevent cognitive decline and promote healthy aging.
How To Improve Cognition Daily
Here is a step-by-step guide, rooted in the principles and research we’ve discussed above, to enhance cognitive function each day.
Exercise Routine: Begin your day with a light-to-moderate exercise routine. This could be a brisk walk, jogging, weight lifting, or even a quick HIIT session. It primes the brain for enhanced cognition throughout the day. Incorporate this as part of your wake-up ritual. Exercise even before breakfast to maximize the beneficial effects on cognition. Feel free to experiment with different movement practices to see which ones work best for you, and switch your activities when you start to get bored.
Brain-Nutrient Breakfast: If you eat breakfast, choose foods that are high in brain-building nutrients like eggs for choline or berries with yogurt for antioxidants and probiotics. Avoid grains and pastries, since they can be inflammatory and worsen blood sugar control. Plan your grocery list in advance to make sure these items are readily available for a quick morning meal.
Mindfulness Break: Take a few minutes for mindfulness meditation, focused breathing, or just complete silence. Schedule this during your typical break time or right after lunch to counteract midday cognitive sluggishness and bring your focus back to the present moment.
Puzzle or Brain Game: Engage in a quick round of Sudoku, a crossword puzzle, or a strategy-based game. Use a dedicated app or keep a puzzle book handy for this purpose. You can also use this as language learning time, since learning another language is equally expansive for cognition.
Active Learning or Skills Practice: Dedicate some time to learning something new, whether it’s about a period in history or a craft, like knitting. Set aside time right before or after dinner for this. Use dedicated software tools or courses to aid your learning. Follow along with videos, or have a friend or family member teach you something to enhance connections with your loved ones.
Quality Sleep: Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep, with a focus on improving sleep quality. Keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet to get the deepest, most restorative sleep, and limit non-sleep activities in your bedroom so you’re subconsciously triggered to sleep when you’re in there.
By integrating these steps into your daily life, you’re directly influencing several pathways responsible for cognitive function. While they are effective individually, their cumulative effect could be exponentially beneficial for enhancing cognitive function and staving off cognitive decline.
Physical and cognitive exercises are two essential components of a healthy lifestyle, especially as we age. By engaging in regular physical and mental exercises, we can significantly improve our cognitive health and maintain our mental sharpness into ever older age. Remember, the best exercise is the one that you enjoy and can maintain consistently. So, find what works best for you and change when you start to get bored. The benefits for your brain health are well worth the effort.
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