How Physical Activity Benefits the Mind

Physical activity has many benefits. It not only reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), and helps you maintain a healthy weight, but it also benefits the mind. It’s widely known that staying active can reduce things like stress and anxiety, but a recent study that was published in the Neurology journal also found that physical activity protects against dementia.

Dementia, which is a broad term used to describe memory related symptoms and conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, affects as many as 747,000 Canadians and a total of 44 million people worldwide, making it a global health crisis. While it’s common to experience periodic lapses in memory, signs that you or someone you know may be dealing with a dementia-related condition include forgetting recent events, people, an increase in confusion, as well as both personality and behavioural changes. If you notice any of these symptoms or they get progressively worse over time, it’s important that they be addressed with your physician. It’s also possible for symptoms of dementia to come on suddenly. Sudden symptoms of dementia could be the body’s way of responding to a nutritional deficiency or infection, which also needs to be treated.

The results of the study (which are part of Rush University’s Memory and Aging Project which was first established in 1997) are encouraging, as it found that older adults who partook in higher levels of physical activity would have the ability to maintain their cognitive function as well as provide cognitive reserve — even when the brain already indicates degenerative changes or if they’ve already received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. While there is no cure or treatment available for the many forms and causes of dementia, including Alzheimer’s, the study shows that some of the detrimental effects of the disease can be countered through maintaining an active lifestyle. As for those without a dementia or Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the study also found that those who kept physically fit were at a significantly reduced risk of developing Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases, as well as would have fewer cognitive problems throughout their lifetime.

The physical activity that someone does doesn’t have to be limited to just walking, as there are many different ways in which you can get active. While walking and jogging certainly has its benefits, these are activities that older individuals, such as seniors, may find difficulty with if they are at all limited in their mobility. That being said, there are other types of hobbies that can also equate to exercise, such as gardening, swimming and water aerobics, and even yoga. While gardening may not necessarily sound like it’s a form of exercise, the Centres for Disease Control has classified it as such, comparing it to that of moderate cardiovascular exercise (i.e. walking, running and cycling.) Things like weeding, digging, raking, lawn mowing, and planting flowers all require movement, and therefore count as exercise. Swimming and water aerobics are especially good for seniors, too, as it is the type of physical activity that presents the littlest risk of injury and is considered low-impact. Aside from benefiting the memory, water exercises also work out all of the muscles in the body, which can help rehabilitate them as well as the joints. Yoga can also improve things like muscle tone, balance (falls are one of the most common reasons why seniors are hospitalized, which is often due to lost balance), and strength.

If you’re unsure about which types of exercise are best suited for you, which you need to avoid, as well as how hard you need to be working out and for how long in order to reap the cognitive benefits, don’t hesitate to bring those questions and concerns to your physician. You may also be able to ask your physician for a referral to a physical therapist who will be able to come up with a workout plan that is tailor made for you and something you can utilize in your everyday life.

Originally published at on February 7, 2019.



Dr. Ali Ghahary is a Family Physician in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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