Healthy Bodies, Healthy Brains

Can exercise change the trajectory of Alzheimer’s disease or delay the onset of cognitive decline? According to Dr. Teresa Liu-Ambrose, Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at UBC, and researcher at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, “the emerging evidence would suggest that regular physical activity can indeed maintain your brain health.”

Many chronic conditions that are associated with aging, such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol have consequences for brain health. However, the risk of developing these chronic conditions can be drastically reduced with regular physical activity. Regular exercise also directly benefits the brain, maintaining proper blood flow to all areas of the brain and increasing circulating levels of neurotrophic factors.

“Neurotrophic factors are like ‘brain vitamins;’ they promote brain cell growth, differentiation, and survival,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose. “Using advanced neuroimaging techniques, we have seen that regular exercise can actually increase brain volume over time.”

But what type of exercise is best for brain health?

“The two major types of exercise are aerobic training, which increases your heart fitness, and resistance training, which is exercise that increases your strength and muscle mass,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose.

While current evidence does suggest that both types of exercise can be beneficial in maintaining one’s health, resistance training may be of particular benefit to the aging brain: “Resistance training has a potent effect on cardiometabolic health – that is, it helps the body maintain proper blood glucose levels. It also counteracts age-related loss of muscle-mass and strength, making it possible to stay active well into old age.”

Easy ways to get moving

“We’re seeing emerging evidence that reducing sedentary behaviour, such as sitting for prolonged periods, is potentially more important than finding time for one long session – you may reap more of the rewards of exercise by simply moving around more during the day, while trying to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting or lying down,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose.

What are some easy ways to get active? “Walk around the neighbourhood, spend time working in the garden, take the stairs instead of the elevator – little things like housework, and short walks throughout the day add up.”

“There’s good evidence to suggest that even walking ten blocks per day – a trip the grocery store or the bank, or about 15 minutes of walking at a moderate pace – can maintain your brain health and reduce the risk of cognitive decline even nine years later,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose. “And new studies have shown that even one session of resistance training can improve your memory!”

Exercise is a simple intervention that can benefit body and mind in complex ways. “Healthy aging is akin to a retirement plan,” says Dr. Liu-Ambrose. “The more you invest in yourself during your younger years, the more likely it is that you’ll enjoy your later years in good health. There’s a link between a healthy body and a healthy brain.”

For more information on the role of exercise in healthy aging, join Dr. Liu-Ambrose for her talk, titled “Can the risk of Alzheimer Disease be reduced with Exercise?”, at UBC’s 2015 Alzheimer Update on January 31, 2015.