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Physical exercise for improved cognitive health.

As we get older, our cognitive health deteriorates. It’s part of our natural process of aging.  However, there is compelling evidence that shows that we can protect our brain from aging and even improve its function by adding physical exercise to our daily routine.  Strength training and in particular of the large muscle groups is particularly beneficial.  A recent study[1] suggests that as little as 20 minutes of leg exercise boosted long term memory by 10%.

Another recent study[2] shows that physical exercise can slow down our brain from again by as many as 10 years.  The process of promoting cognitive health through physical health is known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity. The way that this works is that exercise causes the muscles to release hormones like brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which encourage the growth of new brain cells.


With the right lifestyle, the brain's memory centre (hippocampus) which normally shrinks with age, is capable of growing new cells throughout our entire lifetime, even into the 90s. 

In addition to stimulating beneficial hormone release exercise also helps protect and improve cognitive health by:

  1. Improving and increasing blood flow to the brain

  2. Increasing production of compounds that protect the brain

  3. Improve the development and lifespan of neurons

  4. Slowing development of Alzheimer’s disease through reduction of damaging plaque and altering the way they work inside the brain.

  5. Lowering the levels of inflammatory cytokines (which are linked to chronic inflammation and obesity )

  6. Preventing brain shrinkage by preservation of grey and white matter.

  7. Stimulation of the production of FNDC5 protein which triggers production of BDNF[3].

  8. Reducing the effect of bone morphogenetic protein (BMP)[4]


Physical exercise also known to help reduce anxiety and alleviate depression, often more effectively than antidepressant drugs. The way this works is that exercise normalises insulin resistance and boosts natural ‘feel good’ hormones and neurotransmitters which are connected to mood control, such as, endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, GABA and DHEA.   In relation to anxiety, it appears that well-exercised muscles have a higher level of an enzyme which helps metabolise the stress chemical kynurenine. Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that shows that inactivity promoted depression.


Because of brain requires significant supply of oxygen to function properly, it is imperative to have a well-developed cardiovascular system.   A study[5] examining the connection between exercise, heart health, and cognitive health established that people who had greater cardiorespiratory fitness in their teens and 20’s had better scores on cognitive tests in their mid-40’s and 50’s.


Once you reach your 50’s, physical activity becomes absolutely vital.  It is evident from plenty of studies that even starting exercising at this age is still very beneficial.  It’s never too late to start.  So even if you cannot get a personal trainer or a training programme, it still imperative you move around as much as possible and avoid being a couch potato. The cumulative effect of being sedentary takes a huge toll on our biology.  Therefore it is more important to be moving constantly rather than sitting most of the day and hoping that occasional exercise of an hour of two a week will counter it off. If you can’t move, at least stand up. Maybe consider a stand-up desk, using the stairs instead of the lift (at least part of the way), parking your car further, walk-and-talk etc.


Although it’s never too late to start exercising, the earlier you start and the more consistent you are, the greater long-term benefits. Having a physically active lifestyle is the best investment in your future wellbeing, both mentally and physically. If you’re limited in time you might want to consider High Intensity Interval Training which is highly efficient.


Science is very clear on this issue: memory loss and cognitive decline is not a guaranteed evil which is coupled with older age. It really hinges on your lifestyle. The brain has the capacity to regenerate and grow throughout our entire life, from birth to earth, and movement is a major element for all of these brain-boosting processes to take place.







[2]  Neurology March 23, 2016


[3] BDNF protects neuro-motors in the neuromuscular system from degradation. Similarly, it preserves brain cells and stimulates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, effectively enlarging the brain.


[4] BMP is a protein that slows down the creation of new neurons.



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