A large body of published literature points to the importance of exercise for overall health. Data on the reduction of cardiovascular risk suggests that moving from a sedentary lifestyle to an active one where you get 30 mins of moderate activity a day can lead to an all-cause mortality risk reduction of 19% — impressive results from a non-pharma based intervention. Literature is also evident on the benefit of physical activity to support weight maintenance and diabetes risk reduction. The mantra of 10,000 steps a day has been popular and a study last year (covered in a prior blog post) shows that even half that amount of steps has health benefits.
A new study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings by Katharina Wifffeld from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Site Rostock/Greifswald, Germany examined the association of physical activity and brain health in middle-aged adults- can moving more also mean better brain health in later life?
The study comprised 2013 adults divided into two independent cohorts. They were followed for fifteen years. Participants had their cardiorespiratory fitness assessed using peak oxygen uptake (VO2peak). Oxygen uptake at the anaerobic threshold (VO2@AT) and maximal power output from cardiopulmonary exercise testing on a bicycle ergometer were also calculated. The cohorts also had their brain data reviewed using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The authors were able to develop regression models that adjusted for age, sex, smoking status, blood pressure., A1C, education, and body weight to examine the associations of how exercise may impacted brain health.
Results show a relationship between physical activity and brain health, particularly maintenance of brain volume and gray matter in those who were more active. We would expect to see brain volume and levels of gray matter to decline in older adults- imagine that being more physically active could positively impact that decline? Prior research shows in younger and middle-aged adults that physical activity has a myriad of health benefits. In this study, we see a growing association between exercise and brain health. The study design doesn’t allow us to see a direct cause and effect relationship, but future research can press on these associations more so we can understand how we might support elder health. More studies are needed to better understand the nature of these mechanisms.
In conclusion, it seems that any cardiorespiratory fitness activities like brisk walking, biking, and swimming- primarily activity that gets your heart pumping also appears to help keep your brain healthy. In the last decade, a lot of urban and rural development has included walkable and bikeable spaces to ensure cost isn’t as high a barrier for people wanting to engage in an activity. The reasons to keep active keep growing, and now with our smartphones and sensor data giving us personalized data and insights, what else can we do to increase the activity levels of populations to improve health? None of this happens without considering how we live our modern lives. Longer commutes, more flying, and longer hours seem to be directly at odds with our health. A comprehensive overhaul of work is on a lot of CEOs’ minds. Recently the new leadership in Finland has proposed a four day work week of 6 hours per day. It will be interesting to track how these changes are received. Finding multiple ways to stay active in our daily lives is good for everyone.
Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)
Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Gray Matter Volume in the Temporal, Frontal, and Cerebellar Regions in the General Population https://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(19)30522-1/fulltext