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Keep active to boost brain health in later years

12:00am | & Health

It’s only common sense that regular exercise is good for the body, but new research shows it is also good for the brain, especially if you are over 50.

“Healthy body, healthy mind” is a well-worn phrase and the research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests there’s a good deal of truth in it. The work was carried out by the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise at Canberra, in Australia, where researchers reviewed the findings of 39 studies.

They found that thinking and memory skills were most improved when people exercised the heart and muscles on a regular basis. While exercising is beneficial for the body and mind at any age, it can be particularly worthwhile from middle age onwards in terms of the rewards it brings.

A pot plant will thrive if it is regularly fed and watered, but if neglected it will wither and die. It’s a similar story with the brain, which receives a greater supply of blood, oxygen and nutrients when we exercise. It also receives a better supply of a growth hormone which helps the formation of new neurons and connections within the brain, enhancing its performance.

So for our brains to thrive, they need to be regularly ‘fed and watered’, and the way to do that is through exercise. It needn’t be tough physical exertion – moderate exercise is just as good as long as it is on a regular basis, with experts recommending a total of around 150 minutes per week. That could be achieved through taking a half-hour walk five days a week, or through 10-minute sessions taken 15 times spread over the week.

The researchers also found that particular types of exercise were better for different functions of the brain. Through a variety of tests they found that ‘aerobic exercise’ – activities like walking, jogging, cycling or swimming which work the heart and lungs – improved cognitive abilities such as thinking, reading, learning and reasoning. Meanwhile, exercises designed to strengthen the muscles, such as using weights, had a significant effect on memory and the brain’s ability to organise and plan.

The study’s author, Joe Northey, said the findings were so convincing that both types of exercise could be prescribed to improve brain health in the over-50s: “Even if you are doing moderate exercise only once or twice a week, there are still improvements in cognitive function,” said Mr Northey, “but the improvements were better the more exercise was done.”

Types of gentle exercise such a Tai Chi or taking a stroll were recommended for older people who couldn’t manage more challenging activities or sports, with Mr Northey suggesting a good definition of moderate exercise was that people should be able to hold a conversation while doing it. A little and often is far better than pushing yourself too hard.

Similarly, muscle building exercise needn’t mean ‘pumping iron’ at the gym. Carrying heavy shopping bags for a short distance or exercising by repeatedly lifting household objects serves the same purpose. The key is to find what suits your abilities and build up the exercise slowly.

“Doing both aerobic and strengthening exercise leads to a greater variety of health benefits,” said Dr Justin Varney, of Public Health England. “While every 10 minutes of exercise provides some benefit, doing 150 minutes a week cuts the chances of depression and dementia by a third and boosts mental health at any age.”

But Dr Dean Burnett, from the neuroscience department at Cardiff University, acknowledged that taking regular exercise is not always as simple as it sounds as we get older. He said the study “could lead to increased pressure for the 50-plus age group to exercise more in order to stay mentally healthy, which is good advice but also overlooks the fact that as we age it's increasingly difficult to engage in physical activity, as our bodies are simply less capable of it.”

Dr Burnett said exercise was certainly one element of improved brain function and should be recommended for those capable of it, but it was not the whole story. Other significant benefits can be gained for a healthy balanced diet, drinking in moderation, not smoking, and engaging in mental activity such as crosswords and other ‘brain training’ puzzles.

• For more advice on physical activity and brain health from the Age UK website, click here.

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