The importance of a nutrient-rich diet in maintaining mental health has been well documented. What may be understated is the value of physical exercise for preserving and even improving brain function. As we age, the brain slowly loses elasticity and as a result memory loss occurs and the risk for dementia increases.
The hippocampus, in particular, plays a vital role in learning and memory. It is this region of the brain that is also very susceptible to atrophy, which can lead to depression and dementia among other health conditions. While exercise improves mental health in general, the prefrontal lobe, which is responsible for personality expression, decision making and moderating social behavior, along with the hippocampus, are most affected by physical activity.
Both the hippocampus and the entire medial temporal lobes are larger in physically fit adults. A study published in 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrated this in a one-year randomized controlled trial which included 120 older adults without dementia. The participants were split into two groups: a control group, where participants did not exercise, and a test group whose members performed aerobic exercise. According to MRIs taken before, during and after the study, the exercise group had an approximate 2 percent increase in hippocampal volume, over the one-year period.
The true significance of these findings however can only be appreciated when you take into account the fact that older adults typically lose 1-2 percent of their hippocampal volume each year. The control group in this study saw a 1.4 percent decline in hippocampal volume — which means that over a single year the two groups saw a whopping 3.4 percent relative difference in hippocampal volume. This data makes it clear that achieving a regular exercise routine is not simply a way to nullify age-related losses in brain function but also an effective approach to improving mental function and avoiding dementia and depression altogether.
There’s more good news. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there is growing evidence that low-intensity exercise even for relatively short periods of time can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Walking, cycling, yoga and other exercise that increases your heart rate for just 30 minutes a day can improve oxygen consumption and slow down brain cell loss. The key is to do these activities regularly and combine them with a brain-healthy diet — fatty fish, nuts, eggs, fruits, vegetables, olive oil, avocado, coconut oil — to keep your brain young.