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Can Exercise Keep Away Dementia? Benefits of Physical Exercise for Boosting Brain Health

Fitness has always surrounded me. I started as a gymnast when I was 2-years-old. After gymnastics, I started karate in junior high and continued for 7 years. I was involved in all kinds of sports in high school – partaking in the trifecta fall-winter-spring sports and camps in the summer, too. In high school, I was introduced to running by my mom, who originally tried to use running as a punishment. (Sorry, Mom. The joke’s on you

But truly, I love the way I get to help clients achieve their own fitness and health goals.

One of the things you learn in school is to set goals. Goals are dreams written down. Owning a gym was simply a dream until a few years back. In 2013, Nick and I moved away to a small town in the central valley of California. We both thought it would be a good idea for me to get a ‘real job’. So, I got a job at a corporate gym as a fitness manager. Little did I know at the time, but being a fitness manager meant selling personal training, not actually training clients. Like I said, I love helping clients achieve their personal fitness and health goals.

After months of crying virtually every day, my husband said that it was time for me to go home to Chico. In November of 2014, I went home. A few months later, Nick followed, and we moved back into our home. Nick has such as a great heart; he knew what was in my heart that I wanted to train people. He took time and money to convert our garage into a training studio. It was in March of 2015 that I started taking my own personal training clients. My client roster grew and grew and grew, until one day, my husband kicked me out of the garage. He said it was time to get a commercial location. We are now going on our fourth year at our location on Nord Avenue. Yay!

Fitness Goals and Dreams

Setting personal goals in fitness has always helped me stay focused and drives me to do something more in life. Some of my fitness goals have been getting my black belt in karate, run a marathon before I turned 30, win a foot race, and do a fitness competition. It’s important to have goals. Remember that goals are dreams written down. Setting these goals helped me achieve each and every one. I got my black belt after five years of practice, I ran the Portland Marathon with my uncle Jeff before my 30thbirthday, I won the Loco half marathon in June 2017, and competed in two fitness competitions, the second one of which I won my class in May 2018.

You are probably wondering why you should exercise? Why should you engage in a workout routine?

Not everyone has the same goals. I’m sure there are very few, if any of you, that want to get into a teeny tiny bikini and take the plunge into bodybuilding. Or, maybe you do want to get a bikini body?

Whatever your dreams and goals are for the future, exercise should be a part of those goals. Here’s why. One of my favorite memories of my grandma is when I would head over to her house and she would proceed to brag to me about her doing lunges from her back bedroom all the way to kitchen. She must have done 50 or more lunges a day, and she was in her 80’s! Before that, I would see my grandma and a few of her friends working out in my aunt Jean’s aerobics class. They were this cute little pod of LOL’s (little old ladies) moving right along with everyone else in the class. Sometimes, I was pretty sure they were moving better than the rest of the class.

Maybe you are looking to reach new goals. Maybe you want to run a footrace, like a 5k or 10k, or something longer. Maybe you have been itching to do a fitness competition. Or, maybe you want to get in shape, or improve overall fitness. Maybe your goals are more along the lines of getting stronger. Perhaps, you have grandkids that are getting faster and bigger and you need to be able to keep up with them. Or, maybe you just want to brag to your granddaughter about how many lunges you can do!

As part of your fitness goals, you should look at the very basic of goals. Improving wellness for better checkups with your doctor, better cardiovascular health for a stronger heart. Do you want to live longer so you can see your grandkids grow up? Are you wanting to work on your balance? Do you want a boost in brain health so you can stave off dementia?

Why Exercise?

I have always said that one hour of exercise adds one hour to your life.

Now, experts say there is no downside to high fitness levels. More and more research comes out every day about the benefits of exercise. Much of this research includes the benefits of exercise and how it can help stave off dementia.

The researchers at the Cleveland Clinic analyzed data from over 122,000 patients. These were patients who had taken exercise treadmill tests between 1991 and 2014. The researchers were looking to measure the risk of death from any cause and its relationship to fitness levels and exercise. Do you know what they found? They discovered that higher cardiovascular fitness levels were directly associated with longer life. Extreme cardiovascular fitness carried the most benefit, especially for patients over 70 years old and for those with hypertension.

“There is no limit in how much exercise is too much.”

~ Wael Jaber, MD, Cleveland Clinic cardiologist

Cardiovascular fitness is important in the prevention of dementia, especially in women. Higher levels of cardiovascular fitness in middle-aged women has shown to prevent dementia. Middle-aged women with high levels of cardiovascular fitness were 90% less likely to develop dementia in later years.

The findings of another study found in the journal Neurologyshow that “improving cardiovascular fitness in middle age could delay or prevent women from developing dementia,” Helena Hörder, PhD, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, lead author of the study. Dr. Hörder says more research is needed, but she added that if women did develop dementia, they developed the disease much later – at the age of 90 or later, which is an average of 11 years later than moderately fit women.

Exercise for the Brain

Exercise is good for the aging brain. And the right kind of exercise can protect against neurodegeneration.

Neurodegeneration is the natural decline of brain functions that accompanies aging.

Luckily for us, scientists have found productive “effortful learning” can increase neuroplasticity in the brain. Okay, there’s a lot of science talk here; so, let’s break it down.

Scientists say we need to play “brain games” to increase the neuroplasticity of the brain. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt to new challenges. This could be something simple like playing sudoku on an app. There is some evidence that challenging the brain can increase the amount of white and grey matter in the brain (ACE Fitness Journal, January 2019).

Physical exercise increases blood flow, including to the brain. Blood flow helps bring the good stuff (nutrients) to the brain and dispose waste products. In the simplest forms, if you think of everything that is good for heart – exercise, nutrition, etc. – these things are also good for the brain.

Can you walk and talk at the same time?

Dual tasking is essentially being able to perform something of physical activity (aerobic exercise like walking) with a challenge to the brain at the same time.

Think of dual tasking as a time where your brain takes a bath of healthy blood flow, oxygen, glucose and other nutrients. Exercise and cognitive challenges increase the rate at which the brain is getting nutrients. Combining exercise and cognitive activities gives the brain new nerve birth. Continuing to engage in dual tasking helps ensure that these new nerves are used, therefore skipping the “use-it-or-lose-it” scenario. During early stages of brain development, synaptogenesis, or the creation of new synapses that link neurons in the brain together, is fast but it slows down as we age. Exercise and cognitive challenges combined expands the brain volume with the birth of neurons and synapses. This is good news!

An example of dual tasking is telling stories while performing one of the challenges we do at the gym. This month’s challenge is the wall sit challenge. For every day of the month, we add five or ten seconds to a wall sit. By the end of the month, you are performing a wall sit for over five minutes! To help pass the time, we tell stories. Telling stories helps the time go by faster and we are engaging in dual tasking. It’s win-win!

Study after study report improvement in cognitive outcomes in an individual engaging in physical activities where their heart rate is at 60% to 75% of that individual’s maximum heart rate. This means that an individual is working on perceived effort level scale of 1 to 10 at a 6 to 7½.

Here are some examples of integrated cognitive training in exercise programming:

· Calculating math or reciting poetry while doing resistance training or walking on the treadmill.

· Exercise memory game – learning some exercises from your trainer and then repeating and doing those exercises from memory.

· Food limbs example – Fruit is the left and veggies are on the right. When the trainer calls out a strawberry lunge, you would do a lunge on the left side.

· Dual colors example – The trainer has two colored tennis balls. The blue tennis ball is assigned to left arm and the pink tennis ball is assigned to the right side. When the trainer tosses the pink ball, you would catch it with your right arm.

Your body is a very sophisticated machine. Every time you exercise or do any kind of physical activity, you are essentially giving your brain and your body a tune-up. Just like you take care of your car – you fill it up with gas, you change the oil, you give it regular tune-ups – your body requires regular tune-ups. To stay physically healthy, you need a program of aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance in an individualized program. The brain needs cognitive brain training with brain games on apps or other methods to stay healthy.

Combining physical activity and cognitive brain training improves overall cognitive functions and delay the development of dementia.

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