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Commit to Aerobic Exercise for Body and Brain Health

August 22, 2019

If you find yourself living a more sedentary life year after year, it’s time to make a change! Lack of mobility as we age not only causes the body to become weaker, more limited in range of motion, and raises our risk of injury, a sedentary lifestyle makes the brain age faster too! It’s more important than ever to keep up a regular exercise routine as we get older. 

Our bodies need frequent aerobic exercise, and in our advanced technological world with all the gadgets and screens that fit in the palm of our hands, the options for aerobic exercise programs are practically endless. Aerobic exercise can be done at any age or ability level — it’s not discriminatory. Even if a person has suffered a back injury, has knee or joint pain, or just feels they are too old to exercise, nearly everyone can reap the benefits of some form of aerobic exercise.

Exercise improves memory, focus and attention 

Hundreds of studies have shown that there are both physical and mental benefits to aerobic exercise. Specifically, aerobic physical activity is defined as any exercise where the circulation of oxygen is promoted through the blood and an increased rate of breathing follows. People who engage in regular aerobic exercise have shown improvement in cognition and brain function at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral levels. This has been studied in numerous individuals at a wide range of ages from children still in the first stages of brain development to adults living in retirement communities.

When looking for aerobic exercise that is more specific to optimizing and improving brain health, the main goal is almost always to ensure that you are increasing blood flow to the brain. For example, some studies have been conducted using a stationary bike for their aerobic exercise. One such such study, reported in Time Magazine stated that “when people ride a stationary bike, they experience increased blood flow to the brain, and within that blood are a range of growth factors that are responsible for cell growth and associated with improved brain function.” So hop on that stationary (or regular bicycle) and get pedaling!

Another incredible brain health benefit of aerobic exercise is reducing chronic inflammation. We now know that inflammation is at the root of most chronic diseases, and lowering our daily inflammatory load is important in slowing accelerated aging, especially when we are striving to keep our brains sharp and focused. In fact Brain, Behavior, and Immunity published a study in 2017 that reports that just “20 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic exercise decreased markers of inflammation in the brains”.

Another way inflammation can manifest in the brain is through sleep deprivation, especially chronic sleeplessness. Aerobic exercise has a neuroprotective effect which can help reverse the inflammation on the hippocampal section of the brain, thereby relieving sleep deprivation and its effects, as well as lowering inflammation in the brain. Plus people simply sleep better when they add aerobic exercise to their lives

Knee problems or joint pain holding you back?

Many older people report that they are hesitant to try an aerobic exercise routine because of knee or joint pain. Knee pain is something that is common in people older than 40 years. Surprisingly, knee pain is more common among women than men. Statistics show that 20% of women suffer from knee pain, and this number grows with age, as 23% of women over the age of 60 years old suffer from knee pain. 

The Mayo Clinic reports that, “knee pain can have causes that aren't due to underlying disease. Examples include heavy physical activity, lack of use, injuries such as sprains or strains, sitting in a constrained area, or sitting on knees for a prolonged period.” It’s quite common for knee pain that stems from inflammation in the joints, as well as excessive weight, to become worse without exercise. And while some people feel joint pain exclusively in the knees or elbows, others feel the effects of inactivity on joint inflammation throughout their body.

Aerobic exercise has been proven to provide relief to those not only suffering from knee pain, but also joint discomfort caused by inflammation. It may sound counter-intuitive, but when you engage in aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes, the body can release endorphins that act as pain dulling agents and help to alleviate pain associated with overuse or muscle discomforts. “The right aerobic exercise for your body can be like nature’s ibuprofen, without the negative side-effects,” says Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD.  All the more reason to get your athletic shoes on and your heart-rate up!

If you have persistent knee or joint issues, then lower impact options are a better choice. Common joint-friendly options include water aerobics, elliptical machine, or bike, because they provide good low-impact cardio workout without adding extra undue stress to your joints.

Does your lower back give you problems?

Nothing quite puts you out of your routine like back pain. If you currently suffer from or have ever suffered from back pain, you know that it can be almost unbearable. While it may make the most sense to just sit, be immobile and rest, there are many studies that find aerobics are enormously beneficial to those with back problems — far better in most cases than sitting it out and resting. But they must be done at the right time.

A study by Hoffman and Martin titled “Aerobic Exercise in People with Chronic Low Back Pain” found that people with chronic low back pain who engaged in aerobic exercise found alleviated pressure, and greater pain relief. This study focused primarily on cycle ergometry as the means of aerobic exercise. Throughout the study, pain ratings were measured immediately before the exercise began, at the 2-minute interval, the 32-minute interval, and 25 minutes after the exercise. The exercise-induced analgesia is achieved through the reduction of the pressure pain receptors in the spine during the exercise.

Other aerobic exercises can also help with those who are suffering from lower back pain. Weight gain generally begins to accumulate around the midsection, which causes added stress on internal organs and on the lower back as well. Aerobic exercise helps get rid of some of this excess weight, which then relieves the pressure on the organs and lower back.

While the above-mentioned study used cycling, there are other aerobics that are excellent options for those with chronic lower back pain. Aquatic aerobics provide a great source of exercise without the impact and pressure on the lower back. Additionally, if you are looking for aerobic exercise outside of the pool you can use the elliptical trainer, a stationary bike, a treadmill, or just walking around outside with arms pumping and perhaps up a small hill or two — all of which can help relieve back pain through decreasing stiffness while improving blood flow to the spinal structures. When you improve the blood flow to the spine you are also increasing the oxygen and nutrients that reach the spine, which can speed up healing.

Should I be exercising at my age?

It’s an increasingly common myth: “I’m too old to exercise”. With age, the body starts to slow down a bit, and though you won’t necessarily be able to bounce back as quickly as a 20-year-old, you are never too old to engage in body movement or aerobic exercise. It’s important to listen to your body and not go overboard, but there are lots of modifications you can do to common exercises to make them easier for your age and fitness. Even when it’s a struggle sometimes to get out of bed or off the couch, immobility will age you even faster, not the actual aerobic activity itself. 

A recent 6-month study conducted by Colcombe and Erickson, called “Aerobic Exercise Training Increases Brain Volume in Aging Humans”, examined whether aerobic fitness training of older humans can increase brain volume in regions associated with age-related decline in both brain structure and cognition.

What the study found was quite interesting. As we age, specifically when we reach our third decade, our brain structure begins to naturally deteriorate. This results in a broad range of cognitive effects but more specifically affects memory storage and recall. Exercise was shown in this study and others to be able to reverse this structural damage and reestablish a higher quality of life. This is achieved through numerous anatomical and biological avenues at once.

Aerobic exercise allows the brain to reestablish is blood flow through the development of new capillaries within the brain. It also increases the length and number of interconnections between the neurons. And increases the cell production in the hippocampus which is the center for emotion, memory, and the nervous system. Collectively these benefits support and promote the brain-derived neurotrophic factor and insulin-like growth factor as well.

When deciding which are the best aerobic exercises for you, it is important to look into options that fit your needs. For individuals in the 60-80-year-old age range, you want to focus on moderate to low intensity, with low impact on joints. Again, this includes aquatic aerobics, elliptical trainer, stationary bike, a treadmill, or just walking around the mall, a track, or the park. All of these will provide important aerobic benefits without adding stress on the joints and back.

Bottom Line

Aerobic exercise is a crucial habit that spans multiple age groups and helps with a wide array of physical ailments. Aerobic exercise provides numerous benefits, not only for physical health and strength but for brain health as well. Whether you are looking to lose weight, increase cognition, decrease joint inflammation, or reverse age-related brain decline, aerobic exercise might be your answer!

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