Week nine: Battling brain fog

Abstract purple smoke hookah on a black background.

You walk into a room and stand there, hands on hips, looking around and racking your brain in an effort to remember what on earth you went in there to get.  You write lists on sticky notes only to forget where you stuck them.  Here’s a really good one – you search in vain for the cloth you were just using a couple of minutes ago to wash dishes but it has vanished into thin air.  Or so you thought.  Two days later you open the freezer for something and there it is, the Houdini dish cloth, frozen stiff as a board.  What, I’m the only one that has happened to?!

Long to-do lists and only a tiny bit of time to check each one as done will cause us to be forgetful as we try to juggle too many things at one time.  But sometimes does it seem to happen a little more frequently and you begin to worry about just how often the brain fog occurs?

Believe it or not, exercise can help you win the brain fog battle.  Yep, you read correctly, plain old exercise and not a magic supplement or high-powered super food for the brain.  The biggest bonus your brain gets from exercise is that it can help to reduce your chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s in later years.

Did you get that?  Let me say it again:

The biggest bonus your brain gets from exercise is that it can help to reduce your chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s in later years.

One of the main reasons I exercise, other than the obvious to be physically fit, is to lower my chances of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments that can come from neglecting my body with bad nutrition and lack of exercise.  One scenario I want to avoid in the future is to have to rely on someone to take care of me because of health issues.  When I studied how exercising can improve mental acuity and significantly decrease chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s, I was sold.

Skeptical?  Let me explain.

When you exercise aerobically, the kind that gets your heart pumping and sweat glands working, you send hormones rushing into your brain.  When the hormones enter your brain they mix with a chemical called brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which your brain has to have to make new cells and process information.  In your brain, BDNF not only preserves existing brain cells, it also activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons, thereby making your brain grow larger.

BDNF is also found in your body’s neuromuscular system, and protects your neuromotors from deterioration.  Basically, neuromotos are what control the effects of nerve impulses on your muscles, thereby controlling any movement you make, such as walking, breathing, swallowing, talking, etc.  Think of them as the motor to a car.  When the motor is in good shape, getting where you want to go is a breeze.  If the motor isn’t in good shape or doesn’t work, the car will not run smoothly or not at all.  When the neuro-motors deteriorate with age, your muscles begin to atrophy.  Since BDNF is actively involved in both your muscles and your brain, it explains why aerobic exercise can have such a beneficial impact on your brain tissue. It literally helps prevent, and sometimes even reverse, brain decay as much as it prevents and reverses age-related muscle decay.

Another benefit to exercise is that it prevents age-related shrinkage of your brain, preserving both gray and white matter, which prevents the deterioration of your brain’s thinking and memory skills.

Still another way the brain benefits from exercise is that aerobic activity causes the area of the brain involved in memory and learning, the hippocampus, to become larger.  When the hippocampus increases in volume, this changes the brain function in a way that protects memory.

Kirk Erickson, Ph.D., conducted a study to confirm these findings.  In the study, seniors aged 60 to 80 who walked 30 to 45 minutes, three days per week for one year, increased the volume of their hippocampus by two percent as compared to the typical person of the same age range who loses one to three percent per year (www.pnas.org/content/108/7/3017.full).

Several other studies have been done to examine the how physical exercise affects memory and thinking later in life.  Combining the results of 11 studies shows that regular exercise can significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia by about 30 percent. Specifically for Alzheimer’s Disease, the risk was reduced by 45 percent (www.alzheimers.org.uk/site/scripts/documents_info.php?documentID=2211&pageNumber=6)

Who needs more convincing than that?

No matter what age you are, start exercising!  You don’t have to become a runner or an aerobics addict.  Most of the research conducted has used walking as the form of exercise, but it can also include things like tennis, dancing, taking the stairs, anything that gets your heart rate up and a causes a light sweat.  If you’re out of shape, start with just a few minutes of any aerobic activity that you enjoy and build up to 30 minutes of moderate intensity five days per week.

You don’t have to walk around in a brain fog.  Exercise is not only good for your body, it’s just as good for your brain.  It will not only help you to stay focused and think clearer today, it may just help prevent more serious issues down the road.

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