Skip to main content
You can click on the links below to quickly access specific parts of this page:
Episode 1: Senses Episode 2: Loneliness Episode 3: Cognitive Engagement Episode 4: Exercise Episode 5: Nutrition Episode 6: Brain-Health Resolution Episode 7: Air Pollution Episode 8: SleepEpisode 9: Keep it SimpleEpisode 10: StressEpisode 11: Caregiving


Episode 4: Let’s Get Physical – Pumping Up Brain Health

Episode 4 of Defy Dementia focuses on exercise and its critical role in reducing dementia risk. We first speak to Ernestine Shepherd, an 87-year-old bodybuilder. Ernestine shares how exercise became her anchor during a challenging phase in life and why it remains a vital part of her daily routine today. Then, we turn to Dr. Jennifer Heisz, a brain health expert from McMaster University, an adjunct scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and a triathlete, to hear about the ways in which exercise can protect the brain against cognitive decline and dementia. Don’t miss this exciting new episode to learn how you can use exercise to boost your brain health.   


Key takeaways

  1. Exercising early or late in life can reduce your dementia risk. For those living with mild cognitive impairment, it can reverse negative brain changes, and for those living with dementia it can slow disease progression.
  2. It can be difficult to start exercising, but the good news is that any movement is better than no movement at all. For example, if you’re sitting for long periods of time, try to stand up for a 2-minute movement break twice an hour.
  3. Do something that brings you joy like walking, dancing, or sports, and do it regularly – schedule it in your calendar or work out with a partner.

Key highlights

Allison: “It's well established that exercise and physical activity are good for the body, but it might surprise you to know that they're also good for your brain, and I mean really good for your brain. Whether you're young or old, exercise can reduce your risk of dementia or delay its progression if there's already a diagnosis.”
Ernestine: “Late in life, after my sister had died from a brain aneurysm, I had promised her that I would really start becoming a bodybuilder and helping as many people as I can to live a healthy, happy, positive, confident lifestyle by first prayer, eating healthy, getting out, walking, and lifting weights. And this and that is what I have been doing all of these years from the age of 71 on up.”
Jennifer: “We compared physical inactivity to genetic risk for dementia, and we found that physical inactivity can actually completely negate a healthy set of genes. So you can't change your genes, but you can change your lifestyle. This is so important. I think it’s a very empowering message for people that just the simple act of moving the body can do a lot to protect your brain as you get older.”
Jay: “I think [consistency and inspiration] are so closely linked because, in a way, to do exercise for its ultimate benefit, you really have to do it. You can't just decide, ‘Maybe this afternoon if it's sunny.’ And that's where the inspiration comes in. I think those two help alleviate the inertia that people might feel.”


Learn more about our guests

Ernestine Shepherd is an American bodybuilder who is best known for being, at one point, the oldest competitive female bodybuilder in the world, as declared by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2010 and 2011. She just turned 87 years old and is still an active, albeit no longer competitive, bodybuilder who teaches classes at a local gym. At age 56, she and her sister Mildred Blackwell, then 59, went to try on swimsuits and found their bodies were out of shape. They promised each other they’d get in shape. They started taking aerobics classes. Her sister began competing in bodybuilding shows under the name Velvet, and Ernestine followed under the name Ernie. Her sister died in the early 1990s following a brain aneurysm. Shepherd entered a deep depression, but resolved to carry on her bodybuilding career, in part, to remember her sister. Four years ago, Ernestine’s husband of 65 years died, and she became depressed again. And again, exercise helped her recover. To this day, working out and keeping in top shape still serves as a way to remember her loved ones.
Dr. Jennifer J. Heisz is an expert in brain health and a triathlete. She is Associate Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University and Director of the NeuroFit Lab, which has attracted over $1 million to support her research program on the effects of exercise on brain health. Dr. Heisz received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience (McMaster) and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Brain Health and Aging at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute. Dr. Heisz's research examines the effects of physical activity on brain function to promote mental health and cognition in young adults, older adults, and individuals living with Alzheimer’s disease. Many honours and awards recognize Dr. Heisz for her outstanding contributions to research, including the Early Researcher Award from the Government of Ontario, the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award, and the Canada Research Chair in Brain Health and Aging. She is the author of Move the Body, Heal the Mind, a book that’s designed to help people overcome anxiety, depression and dementia and improve focus, creativity, and sleep. As the New York Times says, the book documents “her own journey from inactivity and serial emotional slumps to triathlon training and increasing serenity.”