Neurologists Name 10 Types of Exercise to Protect Brain Health

By | June 24th, 2024

It’s no secret that regular exercise has significant health benefits, but scientists now know that some forms of exercise can provide more cognitive health benefits than others.

Chris Boyce, a Florida hockey player, sustained a number of brain injuries during his 28-year hockey career. The consequence: Boyce experienced an axonal tear in the superior frontal lobe among other brain injuries. Today, he lives with cognitive impairment.

“I had problems with mood swings, memory at work, constantly losing things, falling off ladders, I was getting in accidents, and I think at one point my doctors had me on about eleven different medications,” Boyce said.

Boyce discovered exercise, even more so than medication, which simply masked his symptoms, has helped manage his symptoms of traumatic brain injury.

“Exercise has been really important to me, if I’m at home and I’m paying attention to the symptoms I can get to my garage and it’s a nice quick fix,” Boyce said. “It helps with my depression, anxiety, it just makes me feel better in the morning and I feel better about myself.”

In addition to slowing the symptoms of neurodegenerative disease, exercise can also be preventative. New York University neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki says exercise has immediate effects on the brain and in the long-term can decrease dementia risk by 30 percent — just by walking. What other types of exercise can have these positive effects on the brain?

UCSF neuropsychologist Kaitlin Casaletto conducted an observational study of participants with a genetic predisposition for developing frontotemporal dementia and the impact exercise can have on disease progression.

“This was the first study into FTD to show that lifestyle has an effect, and among the first among this genetic form to show that perhaps lifestyle could really be shaping your brain health despite this high risk,” Casaletto said. “We found that in these gene carriers, those that had more physical and cognitive activities at their baseline demonstrated slower clinical progression of the disease year over year,” Casaletto said. “It was about a 50 percent slower clinical progression per year in those with the higher levels of activity.”

Here are 10 science-backed ‘brain protector’ exercises.

  1. Swimming

Regular swimming has been shown to improve memory, cognitive function and immune response, and swimming has long been recognized by experts for its cardiovascular benefits. One study found that 20 minutes of moderate-intensity breaststroke swimming improved cognitive function in both groups of land-based athletes and swimmers.

  1. Yoga

In addition to its numerous emotional regulation and mental health benefits, researcher Neha Gothe, kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois, found that yoga appeared to increase the volume of the hippocampus, the part of the brain linked to memory, and benefit the amygdala, which regulates emotion. The amygdala is typically the first region of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s. In previous research, Gothe found that people who did yoga for eight weeks had a lower cortisol response to stress, and stress reduction in turn has a positive effect on brain health.

  1. Running marathons

Phil Gutis, a former New York Times reporter and Being Patient columnist living with early-onset Alzheimer’s ran 17 marathons over just a short three-year period. As a late-in-life runner, Phil began running in races all over the country, raising money for numerous causes including AIDS research. “While the research is clear about the connection between exercise and cognitive disease, I wonder why my 20-some years of intense exercise didn’t stop me from developing Alzheimer’s,” Gutis said. “But then again, my progression has been very slow.”

  1. Jogging

Going for a short jog puts less physical strain on the body than running a marathon, but both forms of exercise produce Irisin. Irisin is a beneficial hormone that is secreted from muscles in response to exercise, and has been found to potentially preserve our brain’s memory and thinking skills. It is also thought to aid metabolic processes in the body. In a recent study, researchers found when they blocked irisin in the brains of healthy mice, the mice did worse on memory tests.

  1. Skiing

In a study analyzing 200,000 long-distance skiers in the Swedish Vasaloppet — an annual cross-country ski race – researchers found that 50 percent fewer people had vascular dementia compared to a control group of non-skiers, but they did not have a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Physical activity like skiing reduces the risk of vascular damage to the brain and the rest of the body, but researchers explained the study also supports the idea that physical activity does not affect the processes that cause Alzheimer’s disease at the molecular level.

  1. Strength training

Exercise that combines aerobic and strength exercises could be the perfect concoction for better brain health in your 80s and 90s. In a study of cognitively healthy individuals ranging from ages 85 to 99, participants that practiced both types of exercise, regardless of intensity and duration, performed better on cognitive tests and showed a greater ability to shift or adapt their thinking compared to individuals who do not exercise or only partake in aerobic exercise. The researchers leading the study encourage health care providers to consider recommending a mixed program of aerobic and strength exercises to their patients.

  1. Ballroom dancing

What if dancing to music with your friends could offer greater cognitive benefits than going for a walk? That’s exactly what Helena Blumen, associate professor of medicine and neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, found in a study she conducted. Participants at risk of dementia that engaged in six months of twice-weekly ballroom dancing classes, versus treadmill walking classes, saw improved brain health and better cognitive function. Social ballroom dancing is both socially and cognitively demanding — you are relying on brain regions important for reacting to the movements of your dance partner, learning new steps, remembering old steps, and relying on your brain regions that make physical movement possible. 

  1. Walking

Walking is one of the lowest-impact forms of exercise and perhaps the least financial burdening, so put on your sneakers. A study at Massachusetts General Hospital found that normal people who had high levels of amyloid plaque in the brain who walked 8,900 steps (roughly 4.5 miles) per day appeared to experience slowed cognitive decline, and a slower rate of brain tissue loss over time. The study was among the first to prove the protective effects of exercise on the brain in people with no symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but who are living with high levels of beta-amyloid plaques.

  1. Cycling

Following his early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis at age 50, Peter Berry combined his passion for cycling with Alzheimer’s education and advocacy efforts. “When I go cycling, I leave dementia at home. I become what I was, not what I am,” Berry said. He cycled through four countries, a distance of 350 miles, and raised nearly $4,400 for Young Dementia UK. 

  1. Exergaming

Exercise doesn’t always have to be a solo activity. Gaming consoles like Nintendo Wii and Xbox Kinect can be a way to engage family members of all ages — and potentially even improve brain and physical health. A randomized trial of forty-five long-term care residents with dementia found that those who participated in an exergame program had greater cognitive function and physical fitness in just an eight week period compared to the control group, who sat and watched music videos during the same 15-minute sessions that occurred three times per week. The intervention group also saw reduced symptoms of depression and better walking speed and reaction time.

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