Start Exercising NOW!
Here’s Why (and How) Exercise Improves Your Brain
All of us – yes, even you – are experiencing normal, age-related decline in gray matter (cerebral cortex, where the thinking occurs) and white matter (the connections). The result is that all of us – again, even you – are experiencing a steady decline in our cognitive abilities. That’s right: you’re getting more stupid with time! This is normal for even the healthiest of us. But if you happen to be someone who carries a genetic predilection for one of the neurodegenerative conditions (example: Alzheimer’s), this decline can be accelerated: it can be severe, it can be rapid, and catastrophic. The good news: You can reduce your risk of neuro-degenerative decline through epigenetics: the alteration of gene expression by non-genetic factors. This article can be considered Part 2 in the Sacred Herbals BrainHAX™ series on Epigenetics Hacks to Fight Cognitive Decline (the first was Turning Back Alzheimer’s). Want to know how to avoid becoming more stupid over time? Here are the ultimate Epigenetics Hacks to help:
There is Hope!
As noted on the 2010 cover of Time magazine,
Your DNA is NOT Your Destiny!
Thanks to epigenetics, you can modify your fate.
What is (are?) “epigenetics,” you ask?
Epigenetics is the study of changes in an organism due to changes in gene expression, rather than changes in the genes – in the genetic code itself. Epi = above, or outside of the gene.
In other words, thanks to the phenomenon of epigenetics, you can influence how your genes are expressed. So even if you have the gene for some horrible disease, you can modify how that gene is expressed. That’s good news.
But back to normal age-related cognitive decline and dwindling gray matter … how do we prevent that?
The answer is … drumroll please … exercise, and meditate. Those are the epigenetics hacks. That simple.
(Actually, it’s not simple; it’s kinda complicated, and at our level of understanding in 2016, epigenetics effects in the brain can be mediated by DNA methylation signatures of various molecules in the brain’s hippocampus and cortex; by histone modifications through acetylation, methylation, and phosphorylation; and by RNA silencing of gene expression through antisense transcripts, noncoding RNA, and RNA interference; but if you’re super-curious just read the articles listed below in the Resources).
Exercise and Cognition
There are an increasing number of large, longitudinal- and intervention- (therapeutic) studies that support the notion that physical activity and exercise can prevent and alleviate the negative impact of age on the body and mind. The body part should be obvious: physical exercise improves the physical body. No surprises there. But what about physical exercise and the brain?
Effect of Exercise on Cognitive Decline for Healthy Older Adults:
- Healthy older adults who are active and who exercise show less cognitive decline over two- to 10-year follow up periods. Specifically, cardio-respiratory fitness at baseline predicts cognitive performance six years later on a variety of cognitive measures: memory, processing speed, attention, and general mental function. [Barnes, et al., 2003].
- In 2010 it was reported that people who participate in any type of regular physical activity show less cognitive decline over a 2.5 year follow up, especially if they engage in vigorous activity more than once per week. [Aichberger, et al., 2010].
- Even older adults can benefit by starting to exercise now: women aged 57 to 85 years who enrolled in a three-year training program showed improvements in both cardiovascular and cognitive function [Rikli, Edwards, 1991].
- Your brain benefits from even shorter-term exercise programs: Middle-aged and older adults who complete a four-month aerobic training program improved strength and flexibility, as you would expect; but they also improved cognitive performance compared to age-matched controls who did not exercise [Dustman, et al., 1984].
Exercise as Epigenetics Hacks Even Works for “Frail” Older Adults:
“Frailty” is defined as “a complex health state of increased vulnerability to stressors due to impairments in multiple systems.” In other words, decline of various organ systems due to aging make us less resilient and increases your risk for adverse outcomes.
Sadly, most of us can think of frail people we know who have bad outcomes: disability, falls, hospitalization, and death [Fried, et al., 2001]. With regard to frailty, the good news is …
Exercise Prevents Frailty
It is important to know that physical activity and exercise can prevent frailty in older adults [Peterson, et al., 2009]. And …
- It’s never too late to start, even in the elderly: a short three-month physical training program for frail people aged 75 years and older found that exercises to improve strength and balance resulted in improved physical functioning, and improved psychological, emotional, and mental health [Helbostad, et al., 2004].
- Similar short-term, three-month physical training in the frail elderly not only improves physical capacity, but provides significant improvement in cognitive performance: executive functions, processing speed, and memory), as well as overall quality of life improvements [Langlois, et al., 2013].
Exercise for Older Adults with Existing Mild Cognitive Impairment and Dementia
What about those who already have some “mild cognitive impairment” or already show early signs of dementia?
Let’s first talk about our original question: Can we prevent that decline? Several studies help answer that question.
Exercise Prevents Cognitive Decline
- Moderate activity during midlife is associated with a 39% lower risk of having mild cognitive impairment (MCI) later in life [Geda, et al., 2010]. That’s good news: you must start now!
- Build your muscles: Older adults with higher muscle strength were found to have a lower rate of global cognitive decline, in a community study of 900 people without dementia at baseline [Boyle, et al., 2010].
- And again, it’s never too late: Late-life moderate exercise is associated with a 32% lower risk of MCI.
And for those who already have early signs of cognitive decline …
Exercise Halts Cognitive Decline
Maybe Even Reverse It !!
- The effect of physical activity can boost the cognitive powers even of those with early stage Alzheimer’s dementia. Six months of high-intensity aerobic exercise improved cognitive performance in adults aged 55-85 years who had MCI [Baker, et al., 2010]. Interestingly, the positive effects on cognition were stronger (improved greater number of cognitive tests) for the women than for the men in the study.
- Finally, a “meta-study” published in 2011 (a meta-study combines results from several studies or clinical trials in order to improve the statistics) included 33,816 non-demented people, of which 3,210 developed cognitive decline during the one- to 12-year follow-up. The authors concluded that physical activity “significantly and consistently prevented cognitive decline”. People who were highly physically active showed 38% lower risk of cognitive decline; those who did even low-to-moderate exercise showed a significant 35% lower risk! [Sofi et al., 2011].
- In those with MCI or early dementia, starting an exercise program can improve cognitive scores: [Cyarto, et al., 2012; Tyndall, et al., 2013].
So there you have it … your brain on exercise.
Q: When should you start to exercise?
A: It’s like planting a tree … the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second-best time to plant a tree is today. In other words, if exercise isn’t already a part of your daily regimen, start today!
What’s keeping you from starting your exercise program? No time to go to the gym? Sitting at a desk all day? Use our Body-Weight FitnessHAX™ Program (easy-to-follow streaming videos)!! Follow our easy-to-use Yoga Streaming Videos. Check out our DeskFit Streaming Videos. All those (and more) are available to Sacred Herbals UNLIMITED HealthHAX™ Members.
How Do Epigenetics Hacks Work?
How Does Exercise Work to Fight Cognitive Decline?
Exercise Helps to Maintain a Healthy Temple
Let’s start with the most obvious benefits of physical fitness: simply having great cardiovascular and respiratory fitness benefits your brain because your body carries your brain around; and your brain requires oxygen, carried by the blood stream; and your brain requires excellent nutritional support, also provided by that body’s gastro-intestinal and cardiovascular systems. Your body is a temple of your soul, but also of your brain! Your body is the temple of your life: take great care of it!
A healthy body provides healthy support for your greedy brain:
The fact is, your brain is pretty greedy: it accounts for only 2% of your body mass, but eats up 25% of your body’s energy! As I’ve described elsewhere, how well your brain can metabolize those nutrients to provide that energy will determine how well your brain can do its job: to think. In summary, the better overall physical condition your body – your temple – the better your brain can do its job; the lower your risk of cognitive decline.
Learning, Memory and Cognitive Decline
Alzheimer’s, Exercise, and Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor:
In order to learn and form new memories, your brain cells – neurons – must form new receptors, create new connections (synaptogenesis, or the formation of new synapses), and even grow new neurons (neurogenesis). And your neurons require great support as they go about these tasks; the supporting cells of your brain are the glia.
Formation of receptors, synapses, and neurogenesis are all positively influenced by brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) [Tyler et al., 2002], under the guidance of the glial cells [Djalali et al., 2005 / Martin et al., 2012].
BDNF is a protein whose concentrations are highest in those brain structures where new learning requires new connections and new neurons – specifically, the cortex and the hippocampus [Tyler, et al., 2002; Hellweg, et al., 1994; Schindowski, et al., 2008]. It has long been known that BDNF is significantly reduced in brains from those with Alzheimer’s dementia [Connor, et al; O’Bryant, et al].
We know from recent research that amyloid-beta (a marker of Alzheimer’s) reduces BDNF production in Alzheimer’s disease patients [Ciaramella, et al]. This observation provides a more direct link from the marker, amyloid-beta, to the reduced ability to form new connections and learning that occurs in Alzheimer’s dementia.
Nutrition, Epigenetics and Mental Health
Think of nutrition as an epigenetics tool to control expression of your genes. Since epigenetics tools can help regulate cognition and delay or prevent cognitive decline, it stands to reason that these epigenetics tools can help optimize mental health in other ways, too. For those people needing psychiatric care, it is fortunate that these innovative approaches are becoming available!
More Epigenetics Hacks Good News:
Recent studies show us how to prevent, or even reverse, this reduction in BDNF:
As we’ve discussed above, exercise has been recently shown to delay the onset of dementia in general [Baker et al]. The research being done by Professor Cotman and his team at UC Irvine has shed some light on why exercise may help fight dementia. They report that physical activity increases the mRNA for BDNF in rat brain [Cotman et al., 1996; 2002; 2007]. Further, they and others [Gomez, et al.; Bernward, et al.] have found that physical exertion in humans increases BDNF and, along with it, enhanced learning. This even holds true for the elderly [Berchicci et al.]. That is, exercise enhances cognition and memory, and it’s never too late!
High-intensity exercise leads to high-levels of BDNF!
Recent studies in people show that the greater the intensity of the workout, the higher it drives BDNF levels [Schmolesky et al; Coelho, et al]. You can read more about high-intensity interval training here. Based on animal studies, the more complex the physical activity, the higher it drives BDNF levels [Klintsova et al.]. Taken together, this research suggests that both complexity and intensity of physical activity both boost BDNF levels.
What does that mean?
Well, it means that something like dance, yoga, or tennis is just as likely to benefit your BDNF as intense running or weight-lifting. It also means that mixing it up a bit – cross-training – is likely to provide the most benefit. So, if you’re considering adding a physical activity to your health and wellness regimen, keep it interesting. The added benefit is that you are more likely to stick with your exercise regimen because you won’t get bored.
Another Benefit of Coffee: it Increases BDNF Levels!
Cocao and coffee (whole-coffee fruit concentrate, or WCFC) have just been found to increase BDNF [Reyes-Izquierdo, et al; Cimini, et al; 2013]. The active ingredients have not yet been precisely identified, but this research is encouraging! Just one more reason to enjoy your coffee before your workout – I do!
Epigenetics Hacks Summary:
- Exercise can prevent and even halt the “normal” cognitive decline of aging.
- Exercise prevents and even halts the abnormal cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s.
- BDNF is important for making neural connections, forming memories, and learning.
- Levels of BDNF in the parts of your brain that are most important for cognition and memory – the cortex and hippocampus – are decreased in Alzheimer’s, but …
- BDNF levels are boosted by
- (1) physical activity, even in those with early dementia; and BDNF levels are boosted by
- (2) ingredients that are present in cocao and coffee.
Good news. Great news!
So get up off the couch. Drink some coffee. And go exercise!
Next Up, More BrainHAX™: Your Brain on Meditation
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- Barnes, et al., 2003: A longitudinal study of cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in healthy older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 51: 459-465 [free full-text download available].
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