Exercise: the engine for a healthy brain

Exercise is good for the brain. Being active not only keeps our bodies fit, but also keeps our brains in good shape. Exercise leads to mental activity and better mental performance. Half an hour of exercise a day already has many benefits for the brain: children become smarter (better concentration and learning ability) and it inhibits dementia in older adults. Movement is the engine for the brain

The amount of exercise determines the way you age

Exercise not only keeps our body, but also our brain in good condition. However, we exercise less and less, while exercise protects the brain and keeps it young, even in old age. The amount of exercise determines the way you age. Exercising for the purpose of being slim is fine. But exercising with the aim of keeping the brain in optimal condition is even better!
Have you not been very active? It’s never too late to get moving.

Exercise, not just for fitness. Also for cognition

Movement keeps mental activity sharp, cognition. Cognition includes the processes of learning, perceiving, remembering, thinking, interpreting, believing and problem-solving. Scientists have long discovered that physical exercise reduces the risk of mental decline, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in older people by 30 to 40 percent. A healthy, daily portion of exercise ensures that you have a reduced risk of developing mental health problems.

Sufficient exercise reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s

Because the condition of the small blood vessels in the brain remains optimal by being sufficiently active, exercise significantly reduces the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 40%. Other causes of dementia are high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, and exercise also protects against high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. 60-70% of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. This disease is a condition in which the cells in certain parts of the brain no longer function.

Alzheimer’s: explosive growth in the Netherlands

Due to the aging population, the Netherlands is experiencing an explosive growth in people suffering from Alzheimer’s. There are currently 235,000 people with dementia, this number will almost double in forty years. The most common form of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. The disease usually starts after the age of 70. In some cases the disease manifests itself at a younger age. Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease experience a gradual decline. Initially there are only thinking and memory disturbances, but over time the symptoms become worse. Alzheimer’s disease cannot yet be cured. The decline can be slowed down by keeping the person with dementia active and in good physical condition.

What is dementia?

Dementia is the deterioration of mental functioning. Many people think that dementia is a specific disease. However, that is not the case. There are various causes and diseases that can lead to the symptoms of dementia. It is therefore very important that the patient is examined by the doctor at the earliest possible stage. Usually the first symptom of the disease is forgetfulness, especially forgetting things that have happened or said recently. Memories from the past are retained for a longer period of time, although no longer in as much detail. Dementia is less common in people who have been physically active all their lives.

Healthy exercise for the brain, how?

In the world of PCs, cars, elevators and the like, people don’t move enough in practice. As many as 32% of adults exercise too little. And this percentage among young people is even higher. More than half (54%) of young people do not get enough exercise. The Dutch Standard for Healthy Exercise is for young people (0-17 years) one hour of moderately intensive exercise every day with strength, flexibility and coordination exercises at least twice a week to improve fitness. Adults (18 to 55 years old) should engage in moderately intensive exercise for at least half an hour a day, and the same recommendation applies to people over 55 years old, but the exercise may be slightly less intensive. Especially people with a sedentary job (but even without a sedentary job, an adult sits about 6.2 hours a day) and students (who sit 7.8 hours a day) should plan activity into their lives. On days off, the sitting hours appear to be the same as on other days. Activity in healthy children and adults only decreases. An average child spends six hours a day in front of the computer and/or television. Half an hour of moderate exercise a day already allows you to benefit from the benefits on mental activity. It does not matter which type of exercise one chooses. It could be vacuuming, walking the dog or cycling. As long as the body has to make an effort.

What exactly does exercise do in the brain?

Exercise and cognitive effort engage the same circuits in the brain, the same neural systems. Connections between brain areas that were always thought to be intended for memory processes also appear to be important for motor processes. These are not new insights, but scientists are gaining more and more insight and confirmation into this. Harvard psychiatry professor John Ratey even writes in his book: ‘Fit! Growing muscles, burning calories, strengthening the heart and lungs: these are actually just side effects that the brain can be influenced by exercise.

The benefits of exercise for the brain:

  • Improvement of learning ability and memory
  • Beneficial for all kinds of psychological complaints such as stress, addiction and depression.
  • It has already been shown that running therapy is an effective treatment for depression. Exercise has benefits in all kinds of areas, on mood and cognitive abilities (also for young people who still have to build this up).


Exercise also makes (children) smarter

The level of activity in children determines their school performance. Children who are in primary school and who put in extra physical effort do well. Attention and concentration are significantly better with half an hour of extra exercise. Sports or active exercise ensures better blood flow to the brain. The blood flow to the white matter improves and this substance is needed to process new signals and information. The white matter deteriorates with age, causing people to walk slower and think slower. This process is inhibited by a lot of exercise (and therefore good blood circulation). Children build up their cognitive reserve through exercise: by exercising you strengthen the connections in the prefrontal cortex that develops until the age of 25. And this provides a buffer against dementia. It is the prefrontal cortex that deteriorates first in the elderly. A child needs a challenging environment where he or she can participate in sports and preferably music. The enriched environment creates more branches in the young brain. This builds up a reserve: an investment in the future, an investment in happiness. And this investment can make all the difference when choosing secondary education. It could be that a child can then just make it to grammar school, while without an enriched learning environment he or she would not have been there. Exercise has a beneficial effect on the neurotrophins in the brain, these are the nutrients that make the chemical system function better and ensure better networks.

It’s never too late to move

Even those who have always been more or less passive improve their fitness, mental activity, cognition and mental well-being by exercising and reduce the risk of dementia. If there is already dementia, exercise is just as beneficial. Elderly people in a nursing or care home are not in good shape because everything is focused on passivity. The elderly demented person is kept passive and even spends more than 17 hours a day in bed. In a nursing or care home people deteriorate quickly and there is no way back. Erik Scherder, professor of neuropsychology at VU Amsterdam and professor of kinesiology in Groningen, has been insisting for years that this system must change. He advocates that dementia patients should exercise, be helped out of the wheelchair and also need an enriched environment (outside air, forest, daylight, exercise), because this is what the brain needs, regardless of the stage of life one is in.

Exercise tips for the brain

  • Don’t force anything
  • Exercise in daylight and, if possible, in a group for social interaction
  • Also be active in other areas such as singing, making music or artistic activities
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