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Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Exercise to Keep Your Brain Healthy & Memory Sharp

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Woman walking on a track.
You have no doubt heard that it is important to exercise your mind in order to keep your brain healthy and performing at its optimal capacity. Usually, this advice refers to mental activities such as working on puzzles, playing cards, reading books, and cultivating a vibrant social life. But it turns out that physical activity also has a huge impact on our brain health.

A study conducted by Dr. Kirk Erickson and colleagues, and published last year in the medical journal Neurology, evaluated the links between brain volume, physical activity, and cognition (mental capacity) of a group of nearly 300 older adults.  Looking at volume is important because we know that as we age, brain volume often shrinks. In people who develop dementia, the volume of brain tissue is often substantially less than normal. Even mild mental decline is often associated with a decrease in brain size.

The researchers found that over the course of nine years, those who walked, on average, at least six to nine miles each week were much less likely to have lost brain volume, and had considerably stronger mental capacity compared to sedentary seniors.

A second study from the same group, published this January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, took 120 sedentary older adults and put them into two different exercise programs. One group was assigned to walking around a track for 40 minutes three days a week. The second group was given an exercise program that did not include any aerobic exercise.

At the end of a year, the walkers’ brains had actually increased in volume, while the low-level exercise group had actually lost a little brain mass. Interestingly, the area of the brain that improved the most was the hippocampus, which is important in maintaining memory.

What does this mean for you? The answer is simple. To keep your brain healthy and strong, do something aerobic at least two hours every week. You can take a walk, ride a bike, run on a treadmill, or go for a swim. It probably doesn’t matter what you do as long as you’re raising your heart rate and moving your muscles. If you need even more motivation, remember this: other studies show that exercising at least 30 minutes five days a week will lower your heart attack and stroke risk by at least 30 percent. Now get out there and have fun!

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Tags: Exercise

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About the Author


MD, FACC

Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.

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