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Wrap Your Head Around Brain Fitness

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Older couple walking on treadmill

While aging is inevitable, healthier aging is well within our control. The good news is regardless of age, our brain is able to improve its neural networks and cognitive function, also known as neuroplasticity. Cooper Fitness Center Director of Personal Training Education Carla Sottovia, PhD, explains how the same exercise that is good for your heart is also good for your head!

A Fit Mind
We know exercise benefits our overall health by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as reducing inflammation and symptoms of depression by flooding the brain with endorphins. However, exercise has also been shown to play a major role in enhancing brain health. The Cooper Institute looked at the relationship between aerobic fitness and the later risk of dementia in the Cooper Center Longitudinal Study (CCLS). The study found that people with a high level of fitness are 36% less likely to develop dementia.

Did you know certain types of exercise can physically alter the structure of the gray and white matter in your brain? “The gray matter of the brain contains neurons, or nerve cells, responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, memory, emotions, speech and decision making,” explains Sottovia. “The white matter is made of cell axons or extensions that carry signals from one area of the brain to another. Exercise can help produce new neurons, connections between neurons and blood vessels.”

Other studies have shown exercise increases a protein in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF assists with neurogenesis or the production of nerve tissue growth. It also influences the brain’s awareness of where you are in space and is responsible for verbal memory. Three specific types of exercises can improve brain health:

  • Aerobic activity improves gray matter, specifically in the areas of the brain such as the hippocampus where dementia and mild cognitive impairments may occur. Even just 30 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve the production of BDNF. Walking six to nine miles per week has been shown to increase gray matter in two of the four regions of the brain—the frontal region (responsible for retaining information) and temporal region (responsible for memory). Running also increases new neural connectivity in endurance runners as young as 18-25 years old. This increased connectivity takes place in the same area of the brain where major declines are seen with aging, such as memory. The earlier in life you become active, the more likely you are to enhance and protect the longevity of your brain’s health.
  • Resistance training can significantly improve the brain’s ability to form new brain nerves (neurogenesis) and new blood cells (angiogenesis) through the increase of a hormone called immunoglobulin factor 1.
  • Mind-body exercise, activities that keep the brain engaged, require coordination and rhythm or accomplish a movement task also improve cognitive function. For example, tai chi can decrease the risk of developing dementia by 60% and juggling has been shown to improve gray matter, enhancing visual and motor information. Other mind-body activities include dancing, yoga and stretching.

For a video demonstration of mind-body exercises focusing on agility, balance and coordination, watch the Exercise Move.

Results speak for themselves
“After beginning to follow an exercise program, I’ve had clients report feeling more alert, having a clearer memory and having more stamina that enables them to do other activities that otherwise were too challenging,” says Sottovia. “As their trainer, I see improvement in their overall ability to perform different movement patterns and coordination.”

Another way to stay active and improve brain health is joining a group exercise program. One program offered at Cooper Fitness Center, Move.Laugh.Connect (MLC), focuses on enhancing brain health and functional years in a group setting. The program incorporates activities focusing on joint mobility, motor control, muscular endurance and strength and brain fitness such as memory recall and reaction time. While MLC is geared toward older adults with limited mobility and stability, many fitness facilities offer group exercise classes such as dance, strength training and core and balance for all ages. 

Healthy lifestyle and brain fitness
To optimize your brain’s fitness level, Sottovia also suggests participating in activities that engage and challenge your mind. Whether it’s learning a new language, joining a social group, listening to an educational podcast or participating in a book club, the options are endless!

While exercise is a key component to a healthy brain, it is important to not neglect the other aspects of an overall healthy lifestyle. Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper provides nine steps to prevent Alzheimer’s:

  • Engage your brain daily: Games, crosswords, brain teasers, puzzles, improve computer skills
  • Get adequate sleep: At least seven hours per night
  • Control coronary risk factors: Blood pressure < 140/90; total cholesterol <200 
  • Use alcohol in moderation, if at all: No more than one drink per day
  • Eat healthy most of the time: Include 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, incorporate the Mediterranean or DASH diet into your eating plan
  • Exercise regularly: At least 30 minutes of collective or sustained physical activity most days of the week 
  • Socialize: Join a club, church, synagogue, group or volunteer with an organization
  • Take your vitamins: Talk with your physician to see which vitamins are right for you
  • Refrain from using tobacco of any type   

At the end of the day, aging does not equate to imminent cognitive decline. In general, signs of dementia could start as early as your 50s but it is all heavily dependent on the type of lifestyle you choose to live. Your health is your responsibility and there is no drug or cure that can replicate the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, especially when it comes to brain health. The more you move, the sharper you’ll be!

For more information about Cooper Fitness Center or Move.Laugh.Connect. classes, visit or call 972.233.4832.