Exercise for a Younger Brain

Would you be willing to spend 90 minutes a week working up a sweat in exchange for a brain that behaves years younger? Drs. Keith McGregor and Joe Nocera from the Emory Department of Neurology have been researching how exercise affects the aging brain for more than a decade, and their findings may just motivate you to lace up your sneakers.

How Your Brain Changes as You Age

Many older adults find that their bodies and their brains just don’t work like they used to. Maybe you’re constantly searching for words that are on the tip of your tongue, or you’ve noticed that your coordination seems a little off. While these are common challenges associated with aging, they can still be frustrating, and if these challenges become severe, they can take a major toll on your quality of life. But why do these changes occur, and is there a way to stop them?

What Is Brain Inhibition?

While several factors can influence brain function as we age, Drs. McGregor and Nocera focus on how something called “brain inhibition” affects language and motor skills. You see, we actually have two sides to our brain — the left and right hemispheres — and our brains function best when only one side activates at a time, which is called “inhibition.” As we age, inhibition can be lost, causing both sides of the brain to activate simultaneously, weakening our language and motor skills.

The Link Between Exercise and Brain Inhibition

The idea that exercise can help you age in a healthier, more dynamic way is probably not surprising. For decades, experts have told us that exercise can help us achieve and maintain a healthy weight, improve our coordination, and more. What may surprise you is exactly how exercise can help your brain function.

Together, Drs. McGregor and Nocera conducted a study that investigated the link between activity levels and brain inhibition in older adults. Their groundbreaking study involved a group of sedentary (inactive) older adults who were asked to take part in a structured exercise program. Before beginning the program, brain images showed that the individuals’ brains were activating on both sides simultaneously.

The group took a 20- to 45-minute spinning (stationary bike) class that had them alternate between high and low intensity throughout the duration of the class. They participated in three classes a week for 12 weeks. By the end of the 12 weeks, the results were astonishing.

Following the program, imaging showed that brain inhibition had been restored — the participants’ brains were now activating one side at a time, just like that of a younger person. While individual results vary, Dr. McGregor says, “It would be fair to say about a five- to seven-year improvement over 12 weeks is what a person could reasonably expect, on average.”

Ready to Get Started?

It’s important to keep a few things in mind first. If you’ve been leading a sedentary lifestyle, you may want to check with your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine — especially if you have risk factors like heart or lung disease or are overweight. Once you get the “all-clear,” remember that the workouts done in the study were aerobic interval workouts, which means you switch back and forth between pushing yourself a little beyond your comfort zone for a while and then returning to a lower intensity for a bit. Do this for 20 to 45 minutes at least three times a week, and within a few months, you won’t believe how great your mind and body can feel.

By Emory Brain Health Center

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