If You Want to Keep Your Brain Healthy, Science Says You Need to Stay Active

Exercise doesn’t just build muscle – it turns out that regular physical activity protects your brain as you age too.

Photo: Luis Alvarez/gettyimages.com

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You already know how beneficial regular exercise can be for your fitness and overall health. It builds strength, gets your heart pumping, releases endorphins and revs your metabolism (and those are just a few of the perks!). But when it comes to your brain health as you grow older, it turns out that sticking with your workouts, or any kind of regular physical activity, is beneficial for your brain.

Scientific research suggests that exercise can help keep your brain functioning properly and in good health later in life. It turns out that when you get moving, you’re delivering a dose of much-needed nutrients that can not only benefit your brain, but also protect it. Here’s how it works – and why exercise is so important as you grow older.

Exercise helps deliver a brain-boosting dose of protein

Research published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association suggests that physical activity can give the brain an increase in one key nutrient: protein.

The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, used human data to assess the impact of staying physically active later in life. Researchers used data from the Memory and Aging Project at Rush University, which tracked late-in-life physical activity of elderly participants, as well as information from participants who donated their brains once they died. 

The researchers saw that individuals who stayed active well into their golden years had higher levels of certain proteins in their brains. Those proteins were valuable because they helped keep connections between neurons strong. The presence of the proteins facilitate the exchange of information from neuron to neuron, a key detail for healthy cognition. Researchers saw that the neurons’ connections were strong in the hippocampus (or memory center) as well as other areas of the brain. 

The team hypothesized that physical activity helps support and stimulate healthy proteins, which in turn keep the brain’s synapses firing and transmitting in all the right ways. The presence of those proteins may even help keep neurodegenerative diseases at bay.

Protein and strong synapses may even protect the brain

One of the most impactful ways in which exercise may benefit your health as you age is by literally protecting your brain. The positive effects of the protein that physical activity delivers, along with the strengthened synaptic connections, may make you a less likely candidate for developing forms of dementia. 

Even in individuals whose brains showed the presence of toxic proteins – like the tau and amyloid proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s – to researchers, it appeared that the proteins and synapse-based benefits of regular physical activity had a protective effect. 

Most older adults do develop some amyloid and tau proteins, especially as they live increasingly longer. And it’s generally believed within the scientific community that amyloid appears and begins to build up first. Tau then appears, and this particular protein is what’s thought to lead to the breakdown of the brain’s synapses and neurons.

However, researchers saw that the participants who stayed physically active and maintained their brains’ synapses appeared to show less of a relationship between amyloid and tau proteins and neurodegeneration. Essentially, while those proteins may have been present in the participants’ brains, the researchers didn’t see the same signs and symptoms that accompany conditions like Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. This suggests that when the brain’s synapses are strong and healthy, neurodegeneration may be something that can be prevented or protected against, at least to some extent.

So, what can you do to maximize your own brain’s protection and long-term health? Lace up your sneakers and stay active – it just might help prevent the breakdown of those all-important synapses and keep good-for-you proteins flowing. While the study didn’t pinpoint any particular kind of activity, regular exercise is a great way to keep yourself moving. You can also make physical activity a daily effort; get up and walk regularly throughout the day, or schedule short bursts of activity if you tend to spend most of your time sitting.

For more on exercise, brain health and staying active as you age, keep reading:

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