Movement for Memory
If you’re living with mild cognitive impairment, physical exercise may help you manage.
It’s true that mental exercise, such as solving a crossword puzzle, is one of the best things you can do for the brain. But breaking a sweat also has major benefits for brain health, including for people living with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
“The research is really piling up that regular exercise is actually going to help ensure that the brain runs optimally,” says Emily Johnson, Founder and Creative Director of StrongerU Senior Fitness.
In fact, in 2017, the American Academy of Neurology began recommending that people living with MCI exercise regularly to manage their symptoms. Last year, at the 5th Canadian Consensus Conferences on the Diagnosis and Treatment of Dementia, a group of doctors and researchers also updated their recommendations on the diagnosis and treatment of dementia to include routine physical activity.
So, what has the research shown so far?
One of the first studies to demonstrate the benefits of physical activity on cognitive function in older adults with MCI was led by Nicola Lautenschlager, Professor of Psychiatry of Old Age at the University of Melbourne, Australia, back in 2008.
In this study, participants who worked out at home three times a week for six months showed modest memory improvements compared with participants who only received educational materials about memory loss and a healthy lifestyle.
A 2010 study, led by Laura Baker, Professor of Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, showed that six months of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling with enough intensity to break a sweat, also improved cognitive performance, including a person’s ability to multitask, adapt their thinking or behaviour, and focus on a particular object. Both were randomized controlled trials, the gold standards in health research.
More recent research — a 2018 study led by James Blumenthal, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina — found that six months of aerobic exercise actually reversed some symptoms of MCI in older adults who walked or cycled for 35 minutes three times a week.
In the study, executive function scores, which are a measure of the ability to plan and complete tasks, were even higher in adults with MCI who combined exercise with a blood pressure-lowering diet.
A follow-up study by the same researchers conducted one year later, showed sustained improvement in thinking ability in the exercise and exercise-plus diet groups; and additional research in 2020, by the same team, provided clues about how lifestyle changes like diet and exercise are benefitting the brain. They found an association between improvements in cognition and metabolic function (the way in which the body uses energy) in the older adults with MCI.
While these findings are promising, additional research is needed to determine whether exercise can delay the onset of MCI in older adults or protect people with MCI from developing dementia.
“More research needs to be done on the progression from healthy ageing to MCI or from MCI to Alzheimer's disease.” says Andrea Wilkinson, Ph.D. in psychology and co-founder of BrainShape Inc., a brain vitality program and podcast.
Still, Wilkinson says it’s an exciting time because “we only recently started to understand the mechanisms by which exercise is playing a critical role in brain health.”
For example, physical activity gets the heart pumping, driving oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the brain; it also helps preserve our white matter, the fatty substance that coats brain cells and controls the speed at which information travels from one part of the brain to another.
Scientists have also discovered that exercise spurs the release of molecules that trigger the growth of new brain cells in adults, especially in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory.
The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines for Older Adults, which recommend 150 minutes of aerobic physical activity per week in bouts of 10 minutes or more, also serves as a good guide for people living with MCI, according to Johnson.
“The recommendation for someone with MCI is actually the same for anyone else,” Johnson says. “So, a care partner and the individual with MCI could be exercising together and it will help them both.”
She suggests walking, starting with 10 minutes a day and slowly building up to 30 minutes or more.
To make it a habit, Wilkinson recommends picking a regular point in your day to exercise, such as after you’ve finished your morning to-do list and had a cup of tea. “To create new habits in our lives, you need to have a signal in your day that tells your brain it is time to go and do the activity,” she says.
The benefits will be noticeable almost immediately. “Exercise is what’s called a waterfall habit. It trickles down into other areas and has a wide impact on everyday life. It helps to manage stress, boost mood, and improves sleep,” says Wilkinson.
At-Home Strengthening Exercises for the Upper Body
We consulted Emily Johnson of StrongerU Senior Fitness on exercises that you can do at home, seated or standing. She recommends a set that focuses on the upper body to complement a walking routine that will help strengthen muscle and bone in the lower body and enhance balance. “I preach walking because it is accessible, but most important is to find a mix of activities that you really enjoy doing,” she says.
Bicep muscles help you carry groceries or a watering can.
Equipment: Soup cans, laundry detergent bottles or hand weights.
- Start with your arms down by your side.
- Breathe out and bring the palms of your hands/items to your shoulder.
- Breathe in and return to the starting position.
Tricep muscles help you get out of a chair or put the lid on a coffee can.
Equipment: A sturdy chair with arms.
- Start seated in the chair with your hands on the armrests and elbows at a 90-degree angle.
- Breathe out and press into the chair to straighten your arms.
- Breathe in and slowly return to the starting position.
Shoulder blade squeeze:
The upper- and mid-back muscles help you maintain good posture.
Equipment: A scarf, belt or resistance band.
- With palms down, hold your band straight out in front of you.
- With your hands shoulder-width apart, pull straight out to the sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Slowly release.
For each exercise, Johnson recommends 8-12 repetitions, twice per week.
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