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Exercise and the Aging Brain: A Fit for the Golden Years

By Martha Michael

Aging and Exercise

Sports trophies and photos from the finish line provide great memories, but they can’t erase the loss of physical ability that comes with age. Whether you were an Olympic contender or a Jazzercise regular, you continue to benefit your body and mind when you stay physically active into your later years.

Benefits of Exercise

Research continues to underscore the connection between physical activity and the health of your brain, which remains important regardless of your age. According to an article in the New York Times, studies show that exercise increases the neurons in the memory and storage center known as the hippocampus. Though brain volume declines with age, regular physical activity can slow the process of memory loss and the onset of dementia.

One study used MRIs to show there’s greater connectivity in the brain for individuals who exercise. They found that brain images of collegiate runners simultaneously lit up in distant regions of the brain while the MRIs of a sedentary control group of students did not. The parts of the brain gaining the benefit of exercise are those dedicated to decision making, memory, and attention, and the researchers concluded that physical activity prompts better communication and improves your thinking skills.

Other research provides similar results that exercise incites more complex activity in your memory center. A study of older African American adults focused on the effect that physical activity has on the medial temporal lobe where the hippocampus is located, the area largely associated with memory. Adding just two aerobic dance classes to their schedules improved brain function in those areas of the brain.

Brain scans of participants revealed that stimulation was not just increased, it was more dynamic for those who exercised. Certain lobes would light up simultaneously with other areas of the brain, then would realign in just seconds to show synchronized activity with parts of different lobes. It serves as evidence that flexibility in the brain is maximized when supported by exercise. Brains with the most interconnections have better performance so there are good reasons to make that aim a reality.

Making Changes to Your Workout

No adult can put off the inevitable realization that with advancing age there is a natural loss of physical capability, but it’s not the right time to stop exercising. You can settle for some course correction instead.

An article on TheHealthy.com has a list of workouts for various age ranges and explains the advantage of changing your fitness routine as you grow older.

In your 60s - Lower impact exercise is a good choice for the average 60-something who wants to remain active without inviting injuries. Reduce the ground force and trade it in for resistance training such as spinning, rowing, swimming, or using an elliptical machine. The goal is a robust aerobic system and a means to strengthen your core.

It’s a good idea for people in this age range to lift weights. Older women who do strength and resistance training tend to have healthier white matter in their brains, which means their memory function is better maintained.

In your 70s - Bodyweight training is a good idea for men and women who are 70 and older. You can use resistance bands, a suspension system, or hire a fitness trainer. You want to work on coordination and balance as well, which boosts your cognitive awareness and provides greater mobility that improves your chance of maintaining independence.

Experts recommend a low-impact cardio workout three times a week for this age group and people in their 70s need to retrain their core muscles as well. By adding age-appropriate exercises to your workout you can improve your fitness but also give yourself adequate breaks between sets of movement.

In your 80s - You’re never too old to stay fit and maximize healthy living options. Again, turn to resistance training to build muscle strength. You can use a machine at the gym such as a leg extension and a cable pull for your arms.

It’s a good idea at any age to discuss your exercise program with a chiropractor, especially in your later years. Regular chiropractic care promotes better posture and increases mobility. A chiropractor is trained to recommend age-appropriate fitness; by keeping a record of your progress, you get early intervention when threats to your health arise.

Your baby pictures may be fading, but your fitness program doesn’t have to follow suit. Long after the glory days and championship drives of your youth, you can still win the race against muscle atrophy and sagging posture by seeking the help of a chiropractor and raising your profile at the gym.

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