Your brain represents one of your most important assets. And as you get older, if you’re not careful, you may notice your brainpower starting to slow. I know that my own intellectual abilities seem to rise and fall more noticeably as I’ve grown older. But I have a daily, proven method I use to protect my brain cells.
Even if research hadn’t shown that exercise is good for brain cells, I would still do it. I just enjoy it too much to stop. My day isn’t complete with at least a nice, relaxing three-mile jog.
The Exercise Experience
Many advocates of the paleo lifestyle believe that more intensive exercise, like sprinting or indulging in CrossFit are more suitable for building fitness. And while slow running may not be everybody’s ideal exercise, it seems to help me keep my weight down and my cognitive powers up.
That’s not just my own, subjective experience.
When researchers reviewed studies of the effects of exercise on older people with dementia, they found good evidence that it improves their cognitive functioning and boosts their abilities at fulfilling normal, daily activities that have been severely impaired.
“Following this new review, we are now able to conclude that there is promising evidence for exercise programs improving cognition and the ability to carry out daily activities. However, we do still need to be cautious about how we interpret these findings,” says researcher Dorothy Forbes, an associate professor of nursing at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Researchers who study brain chemicals have found that exercise stimulates the production of a natural chemical that protects the well-being of the neurons in the brain.
This neuro-protective substance, called irisin, is produced in the brain when you perform an endurance exercise like running or biking.
Scientists have found that when irisin levels in the blood increase, it activates genes involved in learning and memory.
Lab experiments at the Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute shows that exercises increases a molecule called FNDC5 and its by-product, irisin. They, in turn, boost the expression of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) a growth factor that helps maintain the brain’s neural network.
The researchers are trying to find a way to make a pharmaceutical form of irisin that can be marketed by a drug company.
But I’m not waiting for that long drug-development process to take place. Every time I lace up my running shoes and head for the jogging trail, I’m making my own irisin.
And you can, too.
Aside from the brain problems that afflict so many older people, difficulties with vision offer another impediment to an enjoyable life.
Turns out that exercise also protects that part of the body.
A study at Emory University shows that moderate aerobic exercise helps to preserve the structure and function of nerve cells in the retina, even after these cells have been damaged. The researchers believe that their findings show that exercise may be slow the progression of retinal degenerative diseases, a leading cause of blindness that occurs in older people.
Age-related macular degeneration is one of the foremost causes of blindness in the elderly. It occurs when the light-sensing nerve cells in the retina called photoreceptors die off. Exercise may help keep them alive.
Just like the benefits that occur in the brain, here, too, exercise helps the eye by stimulating the production of BDNF.
“These findings further our current understanding of the neuroprotective effects of aerobic exercise and the role of BDNF,” says researcher Michelle Ploughman, Ph.D., who studies the effects of exercise on the healthy and diseased brain at Memorial University of Newfoundland. (She did not take part in this latest study.) “People who are at risk of macular degeneration or have early signs of the disease may be able to slow down the progression of visual impairment.”
Maybe I’m lucky — I’m addicted to exercise, so I don’t need research studies to motivate me to run every day and lift weights a few times a week. But I find it comforting to know that science is catching up to the benefits my body already seems to know about.