Exercising for Brain Health: Why You Shouldn’t Quit

We hear time and time again that exercise may help keep aging brains healthier for longer. Physical activity gets the heart pumping and oxygen-rich blood flowing to the brain during a workout but also after, which is why it is so beneficial.

The results of a consistent exercise routine can be somewhat extensive: a study of older adults found that blood flow to the brain decreased after only 10 days of stopping exercise. The study, led by the University of Maryland School of Public Health, looked at the blood flow in healthy older adults before and after a 10-day period during which exercise was suspended.

All participants were defined as “master athletes”, meaning that they were physically fit adults between 50 and 80 years of age. These individuals have engaged in endurance exercise for the last 15 years or more and have also recently competed in an endurance event. Their exercise routines included one weekly session of high intensity endurance training for four hours; many were running 36 miles a week on average (the equivalent to running a 10K daily).

The participants had an average V02 above 90%, a score which reflects the maximal rate of oxygen consumption and overall physical fitness levels. For this study, the research team used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to observe blood flow to the brain. They measured the velocity, or speed, of blood flow in the brain during the participants’ regular training schedule and after 10 days of no exercise, which is known as resting blood flow. The resting blood flow had decreased in eight regions of the brain, including the left and right regions of the hippocampus and several areas within the “default mode network”.

Though the research team did not find that cognitive abilities decreased after 10 days, the implications of decreased blood flow could impact long-term brain health. Dr. J. Carson Smith, lead author of the study, emphasized that the hippocampus plays an important role in memory and learning and is one of the first regions to deteriorate in Alzheimer’s disease. Reduced blood flow in this area, due to discontinued exercise, could have greater cognitive effects down the line. The team is looking to examine more about how extensive long-term effects may be and how quickly these changes can be reversed.

The Cognitive Therapeutics Team recommends exercising 15 to 20 minutes per day for 3 days a week – remember to keep a regular physical routine along with a healthy diet! Consistency is key!