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Consistency with Exercise Important for Brain Health

Consistency in exercise

We all know exercise is important for both physical and mental health. But so many of us start off strong only to lose interest. It is critical to keep on and remain consistent, especially in middle age.


It happens to us all, whether it is related to illness, injury, time schedules or loss of motivation. We take time off from our exercise routine. If you are relatively physically fit, it will take a few weeks to a couple of months for you to truly lose all of the gains you have made in terms of aerobic fitness.

But what about other health benefits you have achieved?

New research shows that even a 10-day period in which you stop exercising you can significantly reduce blood flow to several brain regions, including the hippocampus which plays an important role in learning and memory and is one of the first brain regions to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. J Carson Smith, associate professor of kinesiology at University of Maryland School of Public Health, notes that the hippocampus responds to exercise training by increasing the growth of new blood vessels and new neurons. In older people, exercise can help protect the hippocampus from shrinking. So, it is significant that people who stopped exercising for only 10 days showed a decrease in brain blood flow in brain regions that are important for maintaining brain health.

Dr. Smith and colleagues measured the velocity of blood flow in brain among a group of study participants between the ages of 50 and 80 with an MRI scan while they were still following their regular training routine (at peak fitness) and again after 10 days of no exercise. They found that resting cerebral blood flow significantly decreased in eight brain regions, including the areas of the left and right hippocampus and several regions known to be part of the brain's "default mode network" -- a neural network known to deteriorate quickly with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease.

This information adds to the growing scientific understanding of the impact of physical activity on cognitive health.
The message isn’t meant to be scary. There was no evidence that cognitive abilities began to worsen after the 10-day exercise break. However, Dr. Smith says, it is an important concept to keep in mind that consistency is key.

"We know that if you are less physically active, you are more likely to have cognitive problems and dementia as you age," says Dr. Smith. "Just as you will quickly lose your cardiovascular fitness, you will also experience a decrease in blood brain flow."

Women’s Running Magazine offers the following tips for getting back into an exercise routine if you have taken a break:

1. Just start with something easy. Instead of immediately tackling a 10 mile run, start slow with a brisk walk or light jog, just to get moving.

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2. Commit to five minutes. Just five minutes. Just get out there…..more often than not, you’ll keep going.

3. Remember how good it makes you feel. Sometimes we focus too much on the effort of it, rather than the outcome. The thing with a workout is while it can be hard in the moment, you will always feel absolutely amazing afterwards

4. Schedule it in your calendar. Just as you would an important meeting, find an open spot in your calendar and treat it as mandatory. After all, you are worth it.

5. Prepare your gym bag. If you prepare in advance, you are more likely to stick with your plan.

6. Take a one month challenge. Sometimes you need a little extra motivation. Join a challenge either in person at a gym or through a virtual program such as YES.Fit. Remind yourself that you can really accomplish big things in just 30 days.

7. Get an exercise buddy. Someone who will push you to be your best, but will be supportive too. A friend, family, work colleague, or coach can help hold you accountable so you stick to your routine.

8. Do it for yourself, not anyone else. Remember that you are doing this for you. What are your goals? To be healthier, to be able to run with your kids, to tackle a great accomplishment such as a marathon? All are great motivational goals. You are doing this for your health and well-being alone. Celebrate that.

Journal Reference:
Alfonso J. Alfini, J. Carson Smith, et al. Hippocampal and Cerebral Blood Flow after Exercise Cessation in Master Athletes. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2016; 8 DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2016.00184

Additional References:
Women’s Running Magazine

Photo Credit:
By Peter van der Sluijs (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons