Managing brain health with exercise and a little something else

It has been long proven that exercise does wonders for the brain. But did you know that aerobic exercise has the greatest impact on your cognition?

In a research review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers examined 39 studies that looked at the link between exercise and cognitive abilities among people over age 50. They found that aerobic exercise appears to improve a person’s cognitive function and ultimately, the researchers concluded that at least 45 minutes to an hour of moderate-to-vigorous exercise three times a week was good for the brain.

The relationship between exercise and better brain health

But how does exercise have these positive effects on cognition? 

Exercise helps memory and thinking both directly and indirectly. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce 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, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.

Many studies have also suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. 

Take it to the next level by pairing exercise with another lifestyle change

The ground-breaking FINGER study found that multi-component lifestyle changes protect people from cognitive decline. This is because health conditions involving blood vessels, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol have all been associated with cognitive decline and dementia, while exercise and a healthy diet counter these conditions.

The lifestyle changes included four components: nutritional guidance, physical exercise, cognitive training, and management of metabolic and vascular risk factors. After two years, despite having a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease, APOE4 carriers who made the lifestyle changes improved overall cognitive function and memory when compared to carriers in the control group.

Dual-task exercise training, in particular, is superior to exercise alone

Dual-task exercise training is when two activities are performed at the same time. In most cases, a motor skill (for example, walking) is combined with a cognitive (thinking) activity. 

Numerous studies[1][2] have shown the effectiveness of physical-cognitive dual task training in counteracting the age-related decline and improving cognitive performance.

Specifically in a study examining the effects of a simultaneous aerobic and cognitive training intervention (EXCOG) on dual-task walking performance compared with exercise alone (EX), cognitive training alone (COG), and a video-watching control group (CON), the improvements in the EXCOG were twice as large as in the other groups, and were significant at just six weeks!

Interested in trying dual-tasking exercise training to improve your brain health? There are available gyms such as Sparkd in Singapore which conduct such programs. Give it a try and let us know what you think!


References

[1] Falbo, S., Condello, G., Capranica, L., Forte, R., & Pesce, C. (2016). Effects of physical-cognitive dual task training on executive function and gait performance in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. BioMed research international, 2016.

[2] Raichlen, D. A., Bharadwaj, P. K., Nguyen, L. A., Franchetti, M. K., Zigman, E. K., Solorio, A. R., & Alexander, G. E. (2020). Effects of simultaneous cognitive and aerobic exercise training on dual-task walking performance in healthy older adults: results from a pilot randomized controlled trial. BMC geriatrics, 20(1), 1-10.