Does Exercise Aid Brain Health?

The Debate’s Yet to be Decided

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 31, 2016

According to AARP’s latest health aging survey findings, age 40 and over respondents who regularly exercise rate their brain health significantly higher than non-exercisers. They also cite improvements in their memory, ability to: learn new things, managing stress, and even making decisions. On the other hand, the findings reveal an overwhelming majority of these respondents see the benefits of exercise, but only 34 percent are meeting the Global Council on Brain Health’s (GCBH) recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week.

These findings in the 37 page Survey on Physical Activity report, conducted by GfK for AARP, directly align with AARP’s Staying Sharp program, a digital platform that promotes brain health though holistic advice supported by science.

“With Staying Sharp, we sought to empower consumers with the tools needed to create a holistically brain healthy environment for themselves—along with a way to track and measure their progress,” said Craig Fontenot, VP of Value Creation. “The results of this survey only further validate the advice suggested on the platform and give us confidence that we’re providing our members with helpful, impactful information.”

The AARP survey findings, released on July 26, found that more than half (56 percent) of the age 40 and over respondents say that they get some form of exercise each week. However, only about a third (34 percent) of these individuals actually achieve the recommended 2 ½ hours of moderate to vigorous activity each week. There was little difference in reported amounts of exercise by age or gender.

The AARP online survey, with a represented sample of 1,530 Americans age 40 and over, found that walking is the most common form of physical exercise reported with 53 percent of the age 40 and respondents saying that they walk for exercise. A smaller percentage is engaging in more vigorous activity such as strength training/weight training (15 percent) or running/jogging (8 percent).

According to the survey’s findings, most of the age 40 and over respondents see the benefits to engaging in physical activity and do not find it particularly unpleasant or difficult. For example, three quarters believe exercise would improve their health, physical fitness, and quality of life.

Having willpower, enjoying exercise, identification as an “exerciser,” lack of enjoyment and feeling like you have the energy to exercise or lack money to exercise are the key factors that differentiate exercisers from non-exercisers, the researchers say.

The study found that the largest share of non-exercisers are “contemplators” in that they see the benefits and are considering taking up exercise (34 percent). About one-quarter (24 percent) are considered “non-believers” and see no need for exercise and were satisfied being sedentary. However, two in ten (19 percent) are “preparers” and say they have a firm plan to begin exercising in the near future.

Finally, the most common leisure activity that age 40 and over respondents would give up if they were to engage in exercise is watching TV/streaming movies (65%).

Removing the Barriers to Exercise

Colin Milner, CEO at the Vancouver, BC-based International Council on Active Aging, says, “These findings demonstrates the amazing and ongoing benefits of regular exercise. Our challenge, to get more people to actually move. By doing so the country and millions of individuals would improve their physical and mental health,” he notes.

Adds Milner, “The most important thing is to remember is that our bodies and brains were meant to be used. If we fail to do so they will cease to perform at the level we need or desire, and that is detrimental to our overall health and well-being.”

“Part of our challenge [to not exercising] is to remove the barriers that prevent us from leading an engaged life. A recommendation would be to list out the reasons you are not exercising or eating well, why you are feeling stressed or are not socially engaged, then set out to replace these with reasons to exercise and eat well, to be stress free and socially engaged. Once you have done this consider what steps you need to take to make this a reality,” he says. ICAA’s Webpage, “Welcome Back to Fitness” (http://icaa.cc/welcomeback.htm) gives the basics to help people begin exercising.

An avid squash player, Richard W. Besdine, MD, Professor of Medicine and Brown University’s Director, Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, preaches the importance of physical activity to all his colleagues and friends. “There are a large number of research studies documenting that exercise is good for all organs in your body,” he says, adding that that regular exercise can also reduce cancer rates, control diabetes, improve one’s emotional health and even reduce depression.

When asked about AARP’s survey findings about the impact of exercise and brain health, Besdine says he applauds the survey’s objectives of examining the relationship between physical exercise and brain health, but its findings are self-reported at best, not empirically derived.

Besdine points out that there is a growing body of studies that empirically study the relationship between exercise and brain health and findings indicate a positive impact on brain functioning. People who exercise are less likely to be cognitively impaired and those who are mildly impaired may even slow or stop the progression of their mental disorder, he says.

“Although AARP’s survey is very interesting it is very limited because it is self-report and cross-sectional, says Deborah Blacker, MD, ScD, Director of the Gerontology Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital who is also a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

AlzRisk, part of the AlzForum, a website that reports the latest scientific findings on the advancement of diagnostics and treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, posts a scientific review of 16 scientific articles reporting on the relationship of exercise habits to the later development of Alzheimer’s disease. Blacker, AlzRisk’s leader, says that this more solid body of evidence suggests that exercise may play a modest role in protecting a person from Alzheimer’s disease, but further scientific research is required.

Like Besdine, Blacker still sees the positive benefits of exercise even if the scientific data is still coming in. “We know that physical exercise is good for preventing cardiovascular disease and diabetes. If it may also help to prevent cognitive decline, for me that is an even better reason to exercise,” she says.

The Bottom Line

“Staying physically active is one of the best things that someone can do for their physical health and mental health. Physical activity can help you lose weight, lower your blood pressure, prevent depression, and, especially for older adults, promote memory and help you think clearly,” said Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH, Director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. “We are working hard to make sure that people from every zip code throughout Rhode Island have access to our state’s wonderful parks, beaches, and other natural resources and are getting the amount of physical activity they need to live long, full, productive lives.”

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3 thoughts on “Does Exercise Aid Brain Health?

  1. The evidence on the benefits of exercise for older adults is piling up. Yet this cohort, like the 45-55 age group, are merely Contemplating a more regular exercise program. I suspect they may view exercise as distasteful experience- – who wants to get sweaty, move their body until their muscles fail and they are out of breath? The fitness industry must find a way to guide adults more gently into exercise that actually feels good AND connects them socially. Only then will older adults embrace exercise as part of their daily comfort zone.

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