What’s the Link Between Physical Activity and Brain Health?

Posted By on May 15, 2021

If you’re familiar at all with senior health and wellness, you’ll know that—in addition to a good diet—physical activity and mental stimulation are two of the top-recommended practices to enhance longevity and overall wellness. What you may not know, though, is that the two are heavily intertwined.

So, while you’re trying to follow the recommended exercise guidelines, every step you take, every weight you lift, and every lap you swim in enhancing your cognitive wellness in addition to your physical wellness! 

Throughout the United States, HarborChase Senior Living communities offer independent living, assisted living, and memory care services to older adults and families. We know how vital physical health and brain health are, so we’re looking at the link between the two and how you can incorporate more of both into your life. 

The Science Behind the Connection

Physical Activity and Brain Health

Physical activity and exercise benefit the brain in many ways. Exercise increases the heart rate, which pumps more oxygen into the brain. Having enough oxygen in the brain is crucial not only to healthy functioning but also in neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to form new neural connections to adapt and grow throughout life. 

Neuroplasticity plays a considerable role in how your brain functions and ages over time, including the ability to process new information and learn new skills, recover after injuries, improve memory skills, and enhance overall cognitive functioning. It’s even been shown that adults who meet the recommended exercise guidelines experience a decreased risk of dementia and a general feeling of mental sharpness.

Physical Activity and Mental Health

In addition to exercise’s effect on the physiology of the brain and memory, it also positively affects a person’s mental health and psychology. Physical activity has been shown to release endorphins and decrease the stress hormone—eliciting the feeling known as the “runner’s high” or the “yogi’s calm.” Over time, regular exercise can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

Physical activity also has other benefits that aren’t as direct to brain health but play a role in mental wellness. For example, regular exercise has been shown to improve confidence, increase socialization, enhance sleep, and better mood.

Don’t Ignore Mental Stimulation

While physical activity promotes brain health, the connection going the other way is not as strong. For example, doing sit-ups may inadvertently strengthen your brain, but reading a book will not strengthen your abs (unless you’re reading it while doing sit-ups). Because of this incongruence, it’s necessary to engage in both physical and mentally stimulating activities to ensure that you’re taking a comprehensive approach to your wellness.

Try These!

Try these activity ideas to maximize your physical and mental health benefits. 

  • Switch up your running or biking route. Simply exercising outside is more conducive to mental stimulation than running on a treadmill looking at a screen. To switch it up even more, try out a different route to experience a new environment. Dr. John Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says, the more different things we do and see, the better. Look for variation and novelty.” 
  • Try a Tai Chi or yoga practice. Tai Chi and yoga involve movements that encourage focus, meditation, and relaxation. They also require you to learn the names and shapes of various poses, promoting neuroplasticity.
  • Dance your heart out. Dancing has been shown to increase attention, focus, and memory. Attend a Zumba class, take salsa lessons, or simply watch a video at home and learn some new moves!
  • Exercise with friends. Not only does exercising with one or more people keep you accountable but socializing with others can keep the brain healthy and even reduce the risk of dementia.
  • Teach to learn. The protege effect has long been documented proving that you can learn something better by teaching others. If you have an activity that is a standard part of your exercise routine, take some time to teach it to someone else. Explain the benefits of a specific yoga posture, show a friend why strength training is important, or help a grandchild learn how to ride a bike.

Sound Mind and Sound Body

There is a powerful and unmistakable connection between the mind and the body.  When you focus on staying physically, mentally, and socially active, you will notice lasting effects on both the outside and the inside. 

Are you interested in learning more about senior health and wellness? HarborChase Senior Living, offering independent living, assisted living, and memory care at luxury communities throughout the United States, serves as a resource for all things senior living. Explore our blog to learn more!