By Candace Chemtob
Everyone knows that regular exercise is good for the body and your overall health. Being physically active can reduce the odds of stroke, diabetes, cancer and heart disease, giving us more than enough reasons to push ourselves on the court. But did you know that physical activity can also improve your brain health? Exercise can optimize memory, help treat depression, decrease the risk for Alzheimer’s disease and improve cognitive skills.
The reasons to stay active are compelling. Exercise is key to slowing down the aging process of not only your body, but also your brain. Playing squash and being physically active will boost your brain power.
The brain shrinks as we age. Starting at forty years old, brain volume decreases by 5% per decade. Decreases in memory are the most common changes seen with the decline in brain volume. By age eighty, some regions of the brain can shrink by as much as 25%.
While this is depressing news, you can do something about it. Maintaining high levels of fitness can protect the brain as we age. In 2015, the fitness level of middle aged men and women was measured using treadmill testing, and brain volume was measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The researchers found that higher levels of fitness were associated with larger brain volumes. This is good news; moderate to intense exercise can stave off age-related brain shrinkage.
Exercise also helps prevent age-related decline in cognitive skills. A 2016 analysis of thirty-nine research studies published in a British medical journal concluded that adults aged fifty or older who exercised forty-five to sixty minutes per day at moderate intensity had improved cognitive status as compared to those who were not physically active.
Another study looked at the exercise habits, cognitive abilities, memory, reasoning and thinking speeds of 1,228 New Yorkers. These were compared at baseline and five years later. The active subjects scored higher on all cognitive tests. The authors concluded “a low level of leisure time physical activity [led to] greater decline in cognitive performance over time across all domains.”
A positive relationship between exercise and a healthy diet with reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease has also been found. A study of 1,260 older Swedes at high risk for Alzheimer’s saw a clear, positive improvement of 25% in “global cognition” in the healthy lifestyle group as compared to the control group.
While exercise alone is not yet considered a treatment for depression, many studies have shown that exercise in conjunction with other forms of treatment can help. In 2011, scientists found that exercise helped severely depressed patients who could not achieve remission with medication alone. Adding regular exercise to their regimen helped 30% of patients go into remission.
The mechanism by which exercise improves brain function, size and mood is not fully understood. Many hypothesize that increased blood flow to the brain has something to do with this amazing benefit of exercise. Additionally, exercise is known to trigger the release of hormones that are known to improve mood, such as endorphins. Leaders in this field suggest that exercise plus a healthy diet can work synergistically to protect your brain health.
Play lots of squash and eat well: that is a good recipe for maximizing your brain power.