I’ve been writing alternative health newsletters for about 12 years now, and Brain Health Breakthroughs specifically for nearly six years.
My aim is to give information the average person will actually act on — as opposed to laying out an ambitious program that involves turning your whole life upside down. My approach is to urge people to do something, even one little thing, rather than nothing.
Now I want to be clear that the disciplined, determined people can find the entire program here in these twice-weekly posts. But I want to reach others as well.
With that end in view, I always tend to soft pedal exercise a little bit because I know so many people simply won’t do it. Out of all the steps you need to take to preserve memory and avoid dementia, regular exercise may be the one most people find hardest.
Knowing that, I’ve tried to make it easy for you, but today it’s time for a little tough love. . .
In spite of my efforts to make life easy for couch potatoes, four of the last 20 articles have been on the benefits of exercise for the brain. The evidence that you need to exercise to avoid dementia is so overwhelming, it’s coming to dominate these pages.
If you’ve been reading these posts and you STILL aren’t doing some kind of exercise daily – and, of course, if you’re physically able — it’s time to stop being a big baby and do something. I recommend a daily half hour walk.
I said this is tough love, so here’s another shot of it: If you’re physically able to exercise and you don’t, you may be bringing dementia on yourself, and you have no one else to blame. Yes, there are a number of other factors that contribute to dementia. But this is one of the biggest, and it’s under your control.
As I’ve said a couple of times before, exercise is the most powerful medicine known for your brain. In Issue #574, I published evidence that people who exercise only moderately are five times as likely to get dementia compared to people who are highly fit.
As for the people in that study who were not fit at all, they were more than six times as likely.
A New Finding Provides Even More Confirmation
If your brain power falters, many experts say the fault often lies in the brain’s hippocampus, one of your key memory centers. Much of the worldwide effort to treat dementia focuses on this little part of your brain.
And now researchers say they can detect exactly where in this organ things may start to deteriorate – frequently in the right side of the hippocampus.
But the good news is you can relieve the problem with a tiny dose of exercise.
A fourteen-year study at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health shows that the right hippocampus often shrinks as we age. As it shrinks, it takes with it our recall abilities and spatial orientation – our natural ability to maintain our posture and understanding of what is around us.
The Pittsburgh investigation involved 175 people in Memphis and Pittsburgh who were in their 70s when the tests started. At the beginning of the study, all of these folks were free of memory problems, and their brain scans didn’t show any cause for concern.
Over the course of more than a decade, the researchers performed periodic brain scans on these individuals, tested their mental abilities and timed their normal walking pace as they strolled down an 18-foot hallway.
As you might expect, everybody in this study slowed down a bit as the years went by. But the people who slowed down the most were 47 percent more likely to encounter serious cognitive difficulties. They lost around 0.1 seconds per year more in the time it took to walk 18 feet than did the rest of the group. And this was true even when the Pittsburgh researchers allowed for increases in knee problems, muscle weakness and diseases like high blood pressure, heart issues and diabetes.
The cognitive changes were also evident in the fact that the right side of the hippocampus had shrunk in these people.1
“A fraction of a second is subtle, but over 14 years, or even less, you would notice,” says researcher Andrea Rosso. “People should not just write off these changes in walking speed. It may not just be that grandma’s getting slow – it could be an early indicator of something more serious.”
Improve Your Brain
To offset those troublesome brain changes, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recommend exercising enough to stay physically fit.
Their study of the structure of the hippocampus shows that the elasticity of the hippocampal microstructure retains its “integrity” in people who keep up their physical fitness programs.2
The Illinois scientists analyzed brain microstructure with a new imaging technique called magnetic resonance elastography. This technique uses an MRI scan that is performed while you place your head on a special vibrating pillow that shakes at a very slow speed. The vibrations allow for calibrating the structural integrity of the hippocampus.
“We found that when the hippocampus is more elastic, memory is better,” says researcher Curtis Johnson. “An elastic hippocampus is like a firm foam mattress pad that pops right back up after you get up.”
“Easy Does It”
When I researched what type of exercise is the best for keeping your hippocampus in shape, I found that studies show you don’t have to be a super athlete to get a dependable memory benefit.
As a matter of fact, I found one study on animals that showed mild exercise – something like brisk walking – may actually be better for your brain than doing intense sprints.3 And a Japanese study on humans found that an easy ten minutes of pedaling an exercise bike can produce significant effects.4
The most important take home message: Doing some kind of exercise is always better than none. Do something you enjoy and that you can keep doing on a consistent basis every day of the year. Your brain will thank you.
And the last time I checked, you brain was pretty much “you.”