Aging Gracefully Blog

Archive for the ‘Exercise and the brain’ Category

Miracle-Gro for the Brain

Saturday, April 8th, 2017

Flex your mental muscle with exercise!  Physical fitness provides powerful protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s. While it is true that your brain changes as you grow older, cognitive decline is not inevitable with age. Studies examining exercise and brain health have clearly established links among physical activity, cardiovascular fitness, weight training, mental function and brain plasticity.  They have found that the dynamic nature of the brain is responsive to lifestyle, including whether and how you exercise.

Studies show that both aerobic exercise and strength training can beneficially change the structure of the brain and produce improvements in memory, while being inactive may lessen mental capacity. And here’s even more reason to get moving now:  Those who are most fit at midlife have a substantially lower risk of developing dementia later in life than those who are not physically active.

The brain retains plasticity, or the capacity to be reshaped, throughout our lifetimes, i.e. it continues to be able to change physically, functionally and chemically as long as we live. The more "plastic" the brain becomes, the more it can reorganize itself, modifying the number and strength of connections between nerve cells and different brain areas. Plasticity in the brain is important for learning, memory and motor skill coordination. 

Aerobic exercise jump-starts that process, cutting your lifetime risk of Alzheimer's in half and the risk of general dementia by 60 percent.  Even one 30-minute session of vigorous cardio activity has been shown improve the brain's plasticity. Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain, triggering the release of a chemical (brain-derived neurotrophic factor also known as "Miracle-Gro for the brain") that stimulates activity in the hippocampus, the area involved in memory, learning and the ability to plan and make decisions.  It also repairs cell damage and strengthens synapses, which connect brain cells.

In general, older people require more of the brain's resources to complete the same tasks that young people do with less cognitive effort.  These are high-level mental tasks that require attention, problem-solving, and decision making.  However, the brain of an older person who is aerobically fit acts like a younger brain; much as a fit body is more efficient in performing the same physical task than one which is less fit.

As you pump up your muscles, you also pump up your brain volume.  Muscles, like brains, tend to shrink with age, affecting how you move.  One study looked at how changes in gait with aging could indicate declines in brain health. It found that after a year of twice-weekly light weight-training sessions, the participants had less shrinkage of the brain and walked more quickly than those who only trained once a week or just did stretching and balance twice a week.

So how much exercise should you aim for to keep your brain sharp?  Brisk walking for 20 or 25 minutes several times a week and light weight training twice a week have both been shown to be enough exercise to boost the brain.  For simple tips on at-home strength training exercises, please visit

(c) Copyright - Joan L. Pagano. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.




A Natural Mood Booster

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

Aging Gracefully by Joan PaganoWhen you're down in the dumps, you may not feel like exercising, but maybe you should.  Studies show that even short bouts of exercise can boost your mood as effectively as medications, relieving anxiety and depression, and building resilience to stress in the future.

Changes in your brain are associated with depression and severe stress.  Low levels of certain chemicals like norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin result in loss of brain nerve cells, contributing to feelings of sadness or emptiness, loss of interest in normal activities and ability to focus.

Antidepressants can raise the levels of brain chemicals to normalize them, but so does exercise.  As you work your heart and muscles, you release norepinephrine and serotonin into your blood stream and increase the levels in your brain.  By increasing circulation throughout the body, you also increase blood flow and oxygen to the brain, making it perform better.

Working out can also reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  The link between chronic stress and the potential for mood disorders is well-established.

Long term stress can actually contribute to shrinking volume in the brain, while depression is associated with loss of brain nerve cells and reduced blood circulation in the brain.

Exercise triggers a number of chemical chain reactions that help reverse some of the biological effects of depression. It can help:

  • Stimulate new nerve cell growth
  • Improve the network of fibers to strengthen communication between nerve cells, enhancing brain function
  • Increase blood flow to fuel brain activity
  • Activate the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in learning and memory
  • Break down kynurenine, a substance that accumulates in the muscles as a result of stress

How much exercise do you need to beat the blues?  Most studies on exercise and depression have involved structured programs of cardio and strength training.  The combination of the two may be better than just cardio training.

If you are just getting started, aim for accumulating 30 minutes of moderate intensity cardio activity for five days of the week and strength training sessions twice a week.  Remember, you can get your cardio in doses of 10 or 15 minute sessions throughout the day. 

For more on building resilience, please check out previous posts:


Seven Habits of Highly Resilient People

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

Resilience has been making headlines lately. It's a intriguing aspect of psychological fitness that impacts your physical fitness and health. Our last post highlighted new research showing that while partially innate, resilience can be learned. A recent article* in the Huffington Post identified seven habits of highly resilient people.

  1. Resilience is not about blind optimism. Resilient people allow themselves to experience both positive and negative emotions. While feeling sad about one thing, they remind themselves that they're grateful for another.
  2. It is about realistic optimism. They combine a positive outlook with critical thinking to create options on how to deal with challenges.
  3. They cope with rejection effectively. Since rejection and set-backs are inevitable in life, they adopt a mindset that maintains their self-esteem and confidence.
  4. They build strong support systems. Social support can boost resilience to stress.
  5. They notice and appreciate small joys and victories, to prevent feeling that "everything is going wrong."
  6. They seek opportunities for growth and learning which enhance their self-reliance and broaden their decision-making skills.
  7. They're endlessly grateful. Being thankful has a positive effect on mood and physical health.  The right attitude allows you to turn difficult experiences into learning lessons.

*As reported in the article "How to Bounce Back from Failure – Over and Over Again" by Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post, 9/2/13,

Resilience: Bouncing Back with Spirit

Sunday, August 25th, 2013

How do you handle set-backs in life?  When adversity strikes, how easily do you rebound?  Are you confident that you can survive life's challenges and carry on? Resilience arms you to fight back against catastrophe and to believe in your ability to cope in the future. It is a measure of psychological fitness.

New research on resilience highlights intriguing findings*:

  • Psychological fitness boosts physical fitness.  A study at Florida State University showed that poor resilience affects aerobic capacity. On a treadmill stress test the least resilient performed as if they were 10 years older than their peers.
  • Poor resilience can also affect your health by weakening the immune system, heart health and brain function.
  • Your own stress response can be more damaging than the stressor itself.  The more you stress over a situation, the more you activate the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which over time can create health problems.
  • While partially innate, resilience can be learned.  Based on 20 years of research from the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Army recently implemented a training program instructing soldiers how to build their resilience, a "boot camp for the brain."
  • At Loughborough University in England, Olympic champions said they wouldn't have won their gold medals if not for overcoming hardships during their training, such as serious illness, career-threatening injuries and their parents' divorce.

I have been thinking about the importance of resilience in the aging process as I watch my 95-year old mother cope with one challenge after another. Despite the many physical restrictions that limit her capacity for life, her buoyant psychological outlook keeps her thriving, moving forward and growing.

For other blog posts on this topic, please see:

A Fighting Spirit at 93

Mental Muscle:  Strength Training for the Mind

How Can Exercise Build Resilience to Stress

*As reported in the September issue of Fitness magazine, "Find Your Backbone" by Dana Hudepohl

Refresh Your Memory and Your Mental Focus with Exercise

Thursday, May 2nd, 2013

Recent studies offer encouraging news for those of us afraid of losing our mental edge with age.

Research shows that exercise – any exercise – has a profound effect on overall cognitive function. Beyond merely stemming memory loss, exercise targets different aspects of cognition to improve recall.

One study recruited women ages 70 to 80 who had mild cognitive impairment, making memory and thinking more muddled than would be expected at a given age. Seniors with this condition develop Alzheimer's disease at higher rates than normal. The women were divided into groups assigned to walking, weight lifting and stretching. After six months, the women who stretched scored worse on memory tests; but the women who exercised in both of the other two groups scored better. While the different types of exercise may have different effects in the brain, they both cause improvement in memory.

Another study examined the effect of exercise on patients with heart failure, because those patients are at high risk of memory loss and other thinking skills. Since the heart is not pumping enough blood to the body, the brain is not getting enough either. A cardiac rehab program that incorporated exercise reversed memory loss.

Finally, for those of us whose brains are simply fried by environmental stresses there's more good news from a study that looked at the cognitive impact of green spaces. A simple walk in the park refreshes the brain by providing relief from constant noise and hectic nerve-wracking demands of city living. The human brain's ability to stay calm and focused is limited and can be overwhelmed with external stimulation, causing it to become distracted, forgetful and mentally flighty. Natural environments engage the brain with effortless attention, allowing for reflection.

To stay mentally sharp, schedule time out for a walk in the park! It's productive therapy for your best thinking.