Weight loss and healthy weight maintenance are the main reasons many of us decide to become physically active. Indeed, multiple studies have proven that exercise is necessary to lose weight and, more importantly, keep it off. However, the benefits of exercise extend far beyond shrinking the size of your belly. Regular physical activity is associated with a lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer and osteoporosis. Exercise improves lung capacity, physical strength and balance, and may reduce the risk of falls and hip fractures in elderly adults.
You may be aware of some or all of these benefits, but do you know that exercise can also improve your mind? Beyond the immediate, positive effects of exercise on mood and ability to think clearly, evidence suggests that exercise also improves our memory, organizational and problem-solving skills, attention span and the ability to learn from childhood through old age.
Most scientific studies focus on the benefits of exercise for adults. However, a few studies with children have demonstrated that physically fit kids are better able to focus and maintain their attention when learning new skills as compared to their sedentary peers. Active children may also learn more easily from their mistakes and frequently achieve higher intelligence scores on standardized tests.
Fitness later in life seems to improve what are called “higher executive functions,” like solving problems, resolving conflict and having good impulse control, which can help us make healthier daily diet and lifestyle choices. Very good evidence suggests that exercise is crucial to preserving memory as well as improving our ability to learn new skills and concepts as we age.
Exercise may also help individuals prevent or slow the progress of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. In some studies, regular aerobic training improved function in parts of the brain that are often damaged by Alzheimer’s disease. In the Chicago Health and Aging Project (a six-year study of the effects of physical activity), researchers found that long-term regular physical activity, including both vigorous activity and moderately-paced walking, was strongly associated with better brain function, fewer cases of dementia and less overall cognitive decline in adults aged 65 and older.
Scientists are working to understand how exercise actually improves brain function. They know that exercise stimulates the brain to build new neurons – specialized cells that transmit information throughout the brain and body – and that this, in turn, increases brain size. In fact, studies measuring the brains of older adults who participated in six-month and one-year aerobic training programs (engaging in aerobic exercise three times a week) showed significant growth in the two areas of the brain associated with memory and learning. Exercise, including strength training, may also increase blood levels of a hormone called insulin-like-growth factor-1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 appears to stimulate neuron growth while also improving neuron survival in the brain.
Although many of us already enjoy the benefits of regular exercise, too many Americans are missing out. In fact, it is estimated that less than 50 percent of children and only eight percent of adolescents are active the recommended 60 minutes, most days of the week. Less than five percent of adults are active 30 minutes a day, the amount recommended by the American Heart Association for the prevention of heart disease and stroke.
Thomas Jefferson supposedly once argued, “A strong body makes the mind strong.” A daily walk, dance class or workout at the gym might do wonders for your mood and mind. However, if you are new to exercise, consult first with your doctor and always choose activities appropriate for your level of fitness and health.
By Rita Carey Rubin, MS, RD, CDE
Rita Carey Rubin, MS, RD, CDE is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Yavapai Regional Medical Center.