Move your body, benefit your brain

Getting fitter can have a major impact on our cognitive health, behaviour and mood


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It’s hard to have a healthy brain in an unhealthy body. The brain and body are connected through neural pathways made up of neurotransmitters, hormones and chemicals.

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It’s hard to have a healthy brain in an unhealthy body. The brain and body are connected through neural pathways made up of neurotransmitters, hormones and chemicals.

When the body breaks down, brain cells can become damaged. This damage interferes with the ability of brain cells to communicate with each other. When brain cells cannot communicate normally, thinking, behaviour and feelings can be affected.

That’s essentially what causes dementia, and in today’s column we’re going to discuss this disease and how to reduce your risk of getting it. Dementia is not a single disease; it’s an overall term — like heart disease — that covers a wide range of specific medical conditions, including the most common, Alzheimer’s disease.

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Dementia is a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life.

Approximately one out of every 14 people over 65 gets diagnosed with dementia. That is far too many, and, unfortunately, numbers are trending upward. Some experts expect that number to double in the next 20 years.

What causes it? Every month there seems to be a study suggesting another new link to dementia. Last month, new research out of the University of California-San Francisco found a link between popular prescription (and some over-the-counter) sleep medications and the risk of developing dementia.

Another report in the journal Neurology back in February found the use of laxatives regularly might increase the risk of dementia as well.

Then there are the usual culprits. A 2018 study found that nearly one-third of early-onset dementia cases were directly linked to alcohol. Other research shows smoking can increase the risk of dementia, especially if you’re 65 or older.

Of course, there’s a difference between correlation and direct causation, and these reports aren’t fully conclusive. Nonetheless, it’s concerning that common medications and lifestyle choices so many partake in have strong links to dementia.

So what can you do as an individual to reduce your risk? Well, thankfully we have some answers. ​A recent study — conducted by the Lancet Commission and shared by Arnold Schwarzenegger in his email newsletter — identified 12 behaviours that can help delay or prevent your chance of dementia by 40 per cent.

Here are the 12 behaviours in no particular order:

● After the age of 40, maintain a systolic blood pressure of 130 mm Hg or less.

● Limit your alcohol intake to a maximum of two to three drinks per week.

● Connect with friends at least three times per week. This can involve phone calls, texts, coffee, meals, Zoom or FaceTime. Do what it takes and make sure you’re not socially isolated.

● It may seem obvious, but stop smoking and support others to stop smoking. Secondhand smoke is also associated with dementia.

● Take daily walks.

● Do some sort of resistance exercise (strength training) two to three times per week.

● Avoid obesity. That means having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 30. But, if you have a lot of muscle, BMI isn’t always the best measure. In that case, you can use other measurements to assess your health. Men should try to keep their waist size under 38 inches and women under 35 inches.

● Keep your blood pressure under 130/85, and fasting blood sugar under 100 mg/dl. (Of course, consult your physician on any of these numbers.)

● Stop wearing headphones at maximum volume. Hearing loss is associated with the development of dementia. And, if you develop hearing loss, use hearing aids.

Ultimately, the things you know you should be doing tend to highlight this list, and as expected, exercise is chief among them. A 2019 study showed aerobic exercise may slow shrinking in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory.

Another 2019 study revealed active older adults tend to hold on to cognitive abilities better than those who are less active.

If you have a serious health condition, talk to your doctor before starting a new exercise regimen. And if you haven’t exercised in a while, start small — even 15 minutes of daily walking goes a long way. I recently read a story profiling a 98-year-old woman, Betty McKeown, of Elgin, Ill., who walks three miles every day and swears it’s what keeps her young.

The best sustainable thing you can do for your health and longevity over the course of your life is to walk every day.

But if you’re already getting plenty of steps in, you may want to take it a step further. ​Scientists recently compared behaviours that impact the brain by assessing the benefits of fasting, light exercise and intense workouts. They measured BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), a chemical that supports the health, longevity, size and strength of your brain.

It might surprise some, but fasting had no impact on BDNF in this study. Doing light exercise led to a small increase. But it was hard exercise that made the biggest difference. Just six minutes of intense intervals triggered a five-fold increase in BDNF, compared to the lower-intensity workout.

This adds to the growing science pointing to the fact exercise is “fertilizer” for your mind and body. Not only does movement help protect against degenerative disease, but it might also help make your mind sharper and keep your brain young.

The study suggests you don’t need to do two-a-day workouts to get results. The benefits were seen after just six minutes. But, for the biggest boost to brain health, you may want to focus on intensity. That can be done through short spurts of exercise that get your heart rate up, like sprinting on a stationary bike, strength training with heavy weights or circuit workouts.

Consider this one more reason why exercising is worth the effort.

Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach who has helped more than 1,500 people transform their bodies and lives over the past decade. Visit to grab a free copy of his metabolism jumpstart or drop him a message.

Mitch Calvert

Mitch Calvert
Fitness columnist

Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based fitness coach for men and women like his former self. Obese in his 20s, he lost 60 pounds himself and now helps clients find their spark and lose the weight for life.

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