Exercise and the Brain

How to keep your mind sharp as you age

couple dancingWhat are the best ways to keep your mind in shape? Take a walk. Ride a bike. Try ballroom dancing.

“People are more alert, better able to pay attention, learn and remember new things immediately after doing physical exercise,” explains Baycrest neuropsychologist, Dr. Susan Vandermorris.

One study described ballroom dancing as one of the best exercises for brain health because it combines physical exercise, cognitive engagement (complicated steps requiring constant problem-solving), and social engagement. “While all three factors are beneficial alone, together they seem to be the magic bullet,” says Vandermorris.

A recent book written by three Baycrest brain experts, Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment Oxford US, Amazon.ca, Chapters/Indigo lists the brain benefits of physical exercise:

  • Exercise aids the survival and consolidation of brain cells particularly in the hippocampus, the area of the brain most important for memory. This leads to an increase in brain chemicals (including one known to be directly related to improving memory), and the growth of new blood vessels in the brain.
  • The frontal and temporal lobes increase in size through exercise. These regions are involved in memory and in executive functioning, which regulates planning, working memory, attention, problem solving, verbal reasoning, inhibition, mental flexibility, task-switching, and initiation and monitoring of actions.
  • Exercise likely helps prevent the small strokes in the white matter of the brain that have been linked to vascular dementia and to the worsening of Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Measurement of the electrical activity of the brain indicates that becoming physically fit alters a person’s baseline brain activity, making a fit person better able to pay attention than a sedentary person, even when not exercising.