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Exercise May Keep Your Brain Younger

August 13, 2016

We all understand the value of exercise, from improving heart health to boosting your mood. 

But a recent study has found that exercise may have another benefit: helping seniors remain mentally sharp as they age. 

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, involved 900 older adults who took memory and other mental skills tests over a five-year period. Participants took the tests and underwent an MRI scan when they first entered the study and then again five years later. The average age of the study’s participants was 71 years old.

Ten percent of the group regularly got moderate to high-intensity exercise, which involves aerobic activities that increase your heart rate. Other study participants got light exercise or were more sedentary. Researchers found that the less active group had more trouble remembering words from a list and showed what amounted to 10 years of brain aging. The active group had less mental decline over the five-year period.

It’s important to note that the study didn’t definitely conclude that exercise slows brain aging. However, it’s clear that there’s a link. We already know that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which may boost brain health. However, it may be that active seniors generally live a healthier lifestyle overall — by not only exercising on a regular basis, but also eating a balanced diet filled with whole grains and other nutrients. 

One of the key takeaways from this study is that seniors who are physically able to do so should get at least moderate exercise. Walking, for example, is great exercise for seniors but you need to increase your speed to make it an effective workout. Research has shown that people who increase their pace — an average speed of 13.5 miles per hour — get more benefits from walking than those who do it at a slower pace. 

Exercise also can improve healing in seniors because it increases blood flow throughout the body. And as we know, it plays an important role (along with a healthy diet) in preventing chronic conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and even cancer. Many seniors also deal with balance issues as they age, which can lead to injury. Regular exercise, especially workouts like yoga that focus on balance, can increase stability as you get older. Weight-bearing exercises can reduce your risk for osteoporosis (which affects 10 million Americans) and can help you manage symptoms of this disease if you have it.

Seniors often worry about the risk of injury during exercise, but there are plenty of things you can do to stay in shape. Water aerobics is gaining popularity among older adults and is especially beneficial for people recovering from injury or surgery, those who have osteoporosis or fibromyalgia or who are unable to do weight-bearing exercises. A brisk walk is another option, because it doesn’t put as much pressure on your joints as running does. Overall, you should focus on exercises that increase your balance, strength and endurance. The National Institute on Aging has a list of helpful sample exercises on its site. Focusing on one of these workouts for at least 30 minutes a day, four to five times a week can help you stay healthy. And as the study suggests, may help you maintain brain power as you age. 

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