Physical endurance exercises protect the brain from cognitive decline

Endurance, cardiorespiratory exercises: brisk walking, running, biking, and just about any other exercise that gets your heart pumping, are good for your body, but also for fighting cognitive decline.

A study in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings journal for neurodegenerative diseases provides new evidence for an association between cardiorespiratory fitness and brain health, particularly in gray matter and total brain volume, especially in the brain regions involved in cognitive decline and aging.

Brain tissue is made up of gray matter and filaments called white matter that extend from gray matter cells. Gray matter volume appears to correlate with various cognitive skills and abilities. The researchers found that increases in maximal oxygen intake are strongly associated with an increase in gray matter volume.

The study involved 2,013 adults from two independent cohorts in northeastern Germany. Participants were screened in stages over several years. Cardiorespiratory fitness was measured based on peak oxygen uptake and other standards while participants were using an exercise bike. MRI images of the brain were also analyzed.

The findings suggest that cardiorespiratory exercise may help improve brain health and decelerate a decline in gray matter.

For neurologist Ronald Petersen, MD, Ph.D. first author of the editorial, says the most striking feature of the study is the measured effect of exercise on brain structures involved in cognition, rather than motor function. “This provides indirect evidence that aerobic exercise can positively impact cognitive function in addition to good physical condition,” he says. “Another important feature of the study is that these results may also apply to older people. There’s good evidence for the value of exercise in midlife, but it’s encouraging that there may be positive effects on the brain later in life too.

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The study showed that the higher volume of gray matter linked to cardiorespiratory exercise is clearly seen in brain regions linked to cognitive changes in aging, including some implicated in Alzheimer’s disease.

For good cardiorespiratory health

According to experts, it is recommended to do moderate and regular exercise, about 150 minutes per week.

Good cardiorespiratory fitness also involves:

  • – No smoking
  • – Follow healthy eating habits
  • – Lose weight or maintain a healthy weight level
  • – Manage blood pressure and avoid hypertension
  • – Control cholesterol levels
  • – Reduce blood sugar, which over time can damage your heart and other organs


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