(Version published in the Hamilton Spectator: January 9, 2024)
By: Jennifer J. Heisz & Emma Waddington
More than 500,000 older Canadians are living with Alzheimer’s and related dementias, facing a devasting health condition that erases memories, clouds judgement and impairs communication.
What’s worse is that there is no cure, making prevention paramount.
January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month, and we’d like to help you understand your risk and what steps you can take to reduce it.
Although dementia risk increases as we age and with the inheritance of certain genes, neither of these factors necessarily seals our fate.
Why? Because lifestyle matters, and it matters more than you might think. Research from our NeuroFit lab at McMaster University shows that physical inactivity can contribute to your dementia risk as much as genetics.
While you can’t change your genes, you can change your lifestyle. What’s the optimal exercise for brain health? We have been studying this question over the past decade and here’s a summary of what we’ve learned so far.
Exercise Benefits Brain Health
A simple rule to remember is that what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain. Exercise promotes blood flow, delivering vital nutrients to the brain.
But exercise does much more than that. One of the most amazing things exercising does is grow and strengthen brain cells, just like it does for muscles. Exercise increases growth factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which act like fertilizer for the brain, especially for the hippocampus, helping to offset the shrinkage that occurs in Alzheimer’s disease, aiding in the preservation of our memories.
Beyond these biological benefits, some physical activities challenge our minds, keeping us mentally sharp, while other physical activities connect us socially, easing feelings of loneliness.
Here are three things to remember as you consider adding exercise to your life:
- It’s never too late to start.
- Some movement is better than no movement.
- Consistency is key.
If you are looking to optimize your workouts for maximum brain-health benefits, use the following FITT (frequency, intensity, time, and type) principles:
- Frequency: As often as possible. Do what is feasible for you.
- Intensity: Effective exercise includes moderate-to-vigorous intensity activities. Use the talk test to gauge your intensity. At moderate intensity, you can talk but not sing. At vigorous intensity, it is difficult to talk; you can utter a few words but not full sentences.
- Time:Some physical activity is better than no activity. A minimum of 70 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 35 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity each week is the target for clinically relevant brain health. For optimal brain function, aim for 140 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity every week.
- Type:Include aerobic exercise (walking, cycling, swimming, etc.), resistance training (free weights, resistance bands, yoga, Tai Chi, etc.) or a blend of both. Choose activities you enjoy and consider exercising with a friend or group at least once weekly.
For a more in-depth look at the principles of exercising for brain health, you can read our journal article here: https://journals.lww.com/acsm-esm/fulltext/2024/01000/the_principles_of_exercise_prescription_for_brain.2.aspx#
Ready to take the first step?
The path to a healthier and more resilient brain begins with the simple act of moving— one step at a time. A small investment today can provide monumental returns for years to come.
Jennifer Heisz, Ph.D., is an associate professor in Kinesiology at McMaster University, director of the NeuroFit lab (https://neurofitlab.ca), and author of Move the Body, Heal the Mind. Her research examines how physical activity promotes brain function, mental health, and cognition in young adults, older adults, and individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.
Emma Waddington, MSc, is a McMaster University graduate and member of the NeuroFit lab. Her work examines the impact of orienteering training on cognitive function and has been featured in The New York Times, on NBC, and elsewhere. For information or to donate to the Hamilton Council on Aging, please visit www.hamiltoncoa.com.