Benefits of Exercise on your Body and Brain

Does having a fit and healthy body automatically mean a healthy mind? Apparently one of the many benefits of exercise is that it indirectly boosts memory, brain health and cognitive function, as well as keeping your body healthy. Here's why!

A study conducted at the University of Montreal wanted to assess the link between vascular rigidity and aerobic fitness within the mental aging process. Participants consisted of 31 young people aged 18 to 30 in one group; and 54 older people aged 55 to75 in the second group.

All participants were physically and mentally fit. At the start of the study they were tested to ascertain their maximum oxygen intake during a workout. Their cognitive abilities were then assessed using the Stroop task (see below) during which their brain activity was measured. The participants then underwent MRI scans to measure blood flow to the brain and the physical health of their heart.

The researchers found that there were expected age-related declines in the cardiovascular system, aorta and the cognitive process in the brain in the older group.

However, they also found a clear association between vascular health and brain function in both age groups. The study showed a positive relationship between aerobic fitness levels and mental sharpness. Older participants who had generally better levels of aerobic fitness performed better on the cognitive Stroop test, than those whose heart and aorta was less healthy.

The study concluded that maintaining elasticity in the arteries through an active lifestyle can help reduce cognitive decline as we age.

Measuring Mental Agility Using the Stroop Effect

The Stroop Effect is a psychological way to measure the interference in the reaction time of a simple mental task. For example, if the name of a color is printed in a different color, i.e.; the word "blue" is printed in red ink, it slows down the reader's reaction time to name the ink color. You can try it for yourself here by naming the color of the ink:

Blue

Red

Green

Purple

You'll find the actual written words distract and slow your mental process down. This effect, known as the Stroop effect, is widely used to create psychological tests and assess cognitive ability.

How Exercise can Affect Brain Function

Physical exercise is known to maintain cardiovascular strength. This healthy blood flow appears to keep the brain function healthy too by protecting against cognitive impairment and poor memory. Poor heart health is known to trigger faster pulse waves with each beat of the heart which may damage the smaller blood vessels in the brain.

Related: Do Memory Exercises Really Improve Brain Function?

Consistent exercise is important to avoid sudden excessive blood flow being forced through the cardiovascular system - a classic cause of a heart attack in someone not used to physical activity. Performing gentle exercise regularly and building up to aerobic exercise is the best way to provide cardio protection and a healthy flow of blood to the brain.

According to Sandra Bond Chapman, who published a paper on physical exercise improving memory, "Physical exercise may be one of the most beneficial and cost-effective therapies widely available to everyone to elevate memory performance. These findings should motivate adults of all ages to start exercising aerobically."

Our arteries naturally harden with age and this stiffening begins in the heart's aorta which pumps oxygenated blood directly to the brain. Any hardening of the aorta would affect blood flow to the brain, potentially contributing to cognitive decline. Staying active with regular exercise appears to prevent this decline in cerebrovascular damage, maintaining brain health and helping people stay mentally sharp into older age.

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