Nancy Weinbeck
Nancy Weinbeck

Did you know May 26 is National Senior Health and Fitness Day? When we think of fitness, we often think about muscular strength and cardiovascular health, but fitness also plays a key role in keeping our brains healthy.

As a clinical health psychology graduate student in 1995, I paid my daily dues at the university gym.

When my adviser who was doing research on cognitive ability and lung function asked me about my exercise habit, I told him my time on the cardio equipment, where I spent most of gym hours, cleared my head and helped me think better.

We pondered why that might be, as there was little research on the topic at the time. I could neither quantify, qualify, nor explain why it made me “think better.”

Almost three decades later, scientists are beginning to discover answers to explain the phenomenon I was describing through advances such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalogram (EEG) and other technologies.

Here are just a few of the research findings on the exercise/brain health connection.

Research is showing that exercise appears to impact our brain waves, creating more higher frequency waves. We typically see higher frequency brain activity when we are cognitively engaged, actively using our brain power to problem solve, for example. This is in contrast to lower frequency waves that are activated when we do things more unconsciously and automatically, such as brushing our teeth, riding a bike or driving (when we’re not new drivers or bike riders).

From a structural standpoint, exercise appears to promote the growth of blood vessels. Healthier and more robust blood vessels carry nutrients more efficiently to brain cells. These changes that come from exercise eventually lead to better cognitive performance.

Some studies have also shown neural growth in the hippocampus, which plays a critical role in memory.

Studies on exercise have also shown an increase in connections between parts of the brain involved in different aspects of cognitive function that can become impaired in older adults, such as memory, attention, decision-making and sensory perception. Better communication between these different brain structures brings improvement in cognitive function.

Most recently, an animal study reported in the New York Times has shown that exercise induces the production of a protein that appears to improve brain health and make older brains perform more like younger brains on a variety of cognitive tasks.

We all want better functioning brains, especially as we age. We’ve always suspected that exercise could play a role, and research is beginning to bear out that assumption.

Of course, please check with your doctor before beginning any kind of exercise program. Explore opportunities in your own home or in your neighborhood. Life Plan Communities like Bayview also offer fitness programs that specialize in training for older adults.

No matter your path, see how you can work in some exercise and do your brain a favor. Happy Senior Health And Fitness Day, everyone! Stay well and safe.

— Nancy Weinbeck is the CEO of Bayview in Queen Anne