July 20, 2021 -- Wendy Suzuki, PhD, was a successful scientist and academic.

But in her 50s, Suzuki, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the New York University Center for Neural Science, was so immersed in work that she had no social life, and she was overweight due to lack of activity.

So, she went back to the gym. After a short time, her mood was better. She had more energy and focus. And she lost weight.

With Suzuki’s field of expertise being the brain, the scientist decided to examine the effects of physical exercise through the prism of neuroscience. And what she found is great news for anyone hoping to remain mentally sharp and avoid Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Her findings also fit a growing body of research that shows a powerful link between mental health and physical exercise.

Exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain, says Suzuki, who discusses the science behind the idea in a TED Talk that has more than 3.4 million views on YouTube.

“What if I told you there was something that you can do right now that would have an immediate, positive benefit for your brain, including your mood and your focus?” she says. “And what if I told you that same thing could actually last a long time and protect your brain from different conditions like depression, Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia?”

“I am talking about the powerful effects of physical activity -- that is, simply moving your body has immediate, long-lasting, and protective benefits for your brain that can last for the rest of your life.”

Lifestyle Choices Can Delay Disease

Scientists have known for a long time that exercise is good for the body. In recent years, they are revealing how it is good for the brain, too.

About 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, the sixth leading cause of death among all adults, according to the CDC. It is the most common type of dementia, which is a group of symptoms caused by disorders that affect the brain and cause memory loss and other types of brain malfunction. Symptoms of the disease can first appear after age 60, and the risk increases with age. Around the world, 50 million people have some kind of dementia, according to the World Health Organization.

A Swedish study suggests that stamina is tied to the risk for dementia. Women who were in better cardiovascular health had an 88% lower risk of getting dementia than other women, according to the report published in the medical journal Neurology.

The Alzheimer’s Association says regular cardiovascular exercise can help reduce the risk of getting the disease, echoing a similar message from scientists at the University of Southern California. They found that up to a third of Alzheimer’s cases are preventable through lifestyle changes, including physical exercise.

And the WHO issued these recommendations for people 65 and over:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise every week
  • Or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise
  • Or a combination of moderate and vigorous aerobic exercise combined with muscle-strengthening work.

Strength training has also been linked to cognitive health, improved moods, and better sleep. Just about any exercise will get more blood flowing to the brain, which is crucial. Some exercises -- like dancing and boxing -- strengthen the brain because they require learning and repeating steps, which takes mental focus.

Just one exercise session can improve how our brains work and the part of memory that lets us recognize common information, according to a report from the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.

“Exercise can have rapid effects on brain function and … lead to long-term improvements in how our brains operate and we remember,” The New York Times wrote about the study. Science is finding that adult brains can be malleable, “rewiring and reshaping themselves in various ways, depending on our lifestyles.”

Our brain’s memory centers can become more fit, the study suggests, “an analogy to what happens with muscles,” one doctor said.

Exercise Strengthens 2 Key Brain Areas

Exercise builds up the capacity of parts of your brain associated with memory and learning: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.

“Exercise is not going to cure Alzheimer’s or dementia, but it anatomically strengthens two of the key targets of both those diseases,” Suzuki says.

Mentally, three of the biggest benefits are better mood, memory, and attention.

Another study found that physical activity improves cognition in older adults, even those with dementia, the National Institutes of Health reported.

“Encouraging evidence indicates that being more physically active is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and a slower rate of cognitive decline in older adults,” the NIH said.

Fitness Industry Starts Weighing In

A new fitness center is set to open in Cincinnati this fall to bring physical and cognitive fitness together in one workout. Activate is the brainchild of former fitness industry executive Martin Pazzani. He teamed with Mike Gelfgot and John Spence, who together owned multiple successful Anytime Fitness locations.

“We’ve found that when you put the brain fist, the body follows,” Pazzani says.

“It’s very simple and powerful,” says clinical psychologist Marie Stoner, director of programming & co-founder at Activate. “It’s physical activity and cognitive stimulation combined. Each of them separately is good, but when we do them together, the benefit is greater and comes more quickly. Physical activity is really the antidote for so much in aging.”

Stoner says she was a bit skeptical at first -- aren’t reading and games like crossword puzzles enough to keep our minds sharp as we age?

But it all clicked when she discovered dual-task roots deep in human evolution.

“Early humans lived in the forest and were basically sedentary,” she says. “But then we came out of the forests and began the hunter-gatherer stage, and the brain adapted to the new challenges. People had to be able to think and make decisions while they were running and performing other physical tasks. Those two things got linked together in evolution. That’s why aerobic and strength training are so effective for brain health."

Show Sources

National Institutes of Health: “Physical activity and motor ability associated with better cognition in older adults, even with dementia.”

Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology, New York University Center for Neural Science.

Neurology: “Midlife cardiovascular fitness and dementia: A 44-year longitudinal population study in women.”

The New York Times: “Move Your Body, Bolster Your Brain.”

Cambridge University: “Semantic Memory Activation After Acute Exercise in Healthy Older Adults.”

World Health Organization, Fact sheets: “Dementia,” “Physical activity.”

CDC: “Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias.”

Alzheimer’s Association: “10 Ways to Love Your Brain.”

Martin Pazzani, founder and chairman, Activate Brain and Body Inc.

Marie Stoner, clinical psychologist; director of programming and co-founder, Activate Brain and Body Inc.

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