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Exercise Found to Improve Brain Function in Seniors

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The benefits of exercise are virtually limitless. Exercise improves the health of our muscles, bones and skin, not to mention reducing our risk of developing chronic diseases and helping to keep our weight in check.

Beyond its physical benefits, exercise leads to better mental health, making people feel happier, promoting better sleep and relaxation, and even reducing pain. Research has also shown that exercise is imperative to brain function, something that becomes increasingly important as we age.

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The Cognitive Health Benefits of Exercise

Before turning to the new research on this topic, let’s review what we already know related to seniors, exercise and brain function. For starters, research has shown that exercise can actually help to prevent the physical aging of the brain, thereby helping to sustain sharp mental focus late into life.

Moreover, exercise has been found to be preventive against the development of serious cognitive diseases, such as mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia, and may help to protect our memory as well. But going beyond merely preventing numerous disease, exercise actually helps seniors to have clearer reasoning skills and faster brain processing speeds. In short, exercise is one of the most important things for seniors to pursue in order to maintain a high degree of cognitive function late into life.

So Just How Much Exercise Do Seniors Need?

While we definitively recognize the benefits of exercise, this question of how much has been trickier to answer, with different guidelines and recommendations existing. However, the uncertainty regarding the necessary amount of exercise is lessening on the heels of more and more research.

Recently, research from the University of Miami published in Neurology: Clinical Practice tackled this question by examining all of the existing randomized controlled trials involving groups of seniors who exercised for a minimum of four weeks and had their reasoning skills and memory compared against control groups. In total, their analysis involved 98 such studies, including over 11,000 participants with an average age of 73 years, and among which 59 percent were considered clinically healthy. Aerobic exercise, such as walking biking, and dancing was the most common type, along with strength training and other disciplines.

By compiling and analyzing this vast data set, the researchers came to an estimate: at least 52 hours of exercise over an average period of 6 months leads to better cognitive processing speed, both among seniors considered healthy, and those with MCI. In addition, among the healthy seniors, this level of exercise was found to improve their executive function, which represents the brain’s ability to plan ahead, strategize, and set and achieve goals. Critically, the researchers found no cognitive benefits for both healthy and impaired seniors who only exercised for 34 hours over a six-month period. Unfortunately, they did not discern a link between the seniors’ amount of exercise and memory.

The Best Time to Exercise is Now!

The contrast between the benefits experienced by those seniors who hit the 52-hour mark and those who did not is stark. Moreover, given the large number of studies that were included in this research, the results are powerful and compelling. More research will follow, but it seems wise for all seniors — whether they are deemed clinically healthy or not — to set their sights on hitting this new guideline.

So, to do the math, based on these results seniors should aim to exercise for about two hours per week to hit this guideline. More good news is that the researchers did not find a discrepancy between the types of exercise they examined, so people are free to pursue whatever form of exercise they prefer. Whether it be walking, strength straining, mind-body practices like yoga, or any other sort of sustained movement, better cognitive function may be available for just two hours of exercise each week.

The time is now to take the initiative and incorporate a least a couple hours of exercise into your week, there is a lot to gain by doing so.


Derek is a researcher, presenter and community liaison at the Behavioral Health & Wellness Program at the University of Colorado, specializing in promoting health systems change and combating health disparities. With his background as a technical writer and editor, he has over 15 years of experience working in the health care field. His experience includes serving as a contributing author on several textbooks in the medical field, running a nuclear cardiology licensing course, and writing a variety of other pieces ranging from online training courses to medical software manuals. Derek pursues his personal passion for health and wellness by playing multiple sports, hiking and running marathons, and travels extensively, having visited or lived in over 60 countries.


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