What Is the Link Between Physical Fitness and Brain Health?

Being physically active can do wonders for the body… and the mind. Find out how brain health relates to physical fitness in this post from guest blogger Anabel Cooper.

It’s long been assumed that there is some kind of link between physical fitness and brain health. However, the majority of studies that investigated this link have gone for a methodology less than completely accurate. Generally, scientists have depended on self-reporting by volunteers of their levels of exercise. However, a recent series of tests adopted a new methodology and confirmed that:

  • Increased aerobic fitness is reflected in integrity of white matter
  • The largest results related to executive and memory function
  • Poor aerobic fitness resulted in poor memory and reasoning results

The main way this test differed from previous ones was in a new methodology. Aerobic tests were carried out with and measured by VO2 Max. As a result, scientists were able to take precise measurements of the fitness levels of the participants. From these results, they were able to work out some definite correlations between fitness levels and integrity of white matter. This isn’t to say that fitness is the be all and end all, or that it plays a definitive role in the development of white matter. The scientists noticed that in many cases, there was little difference in development between a subject with high fitness levels and one without. However, there is nevertheless an important correlation.

While these results may have little significance for younger people, their effects on an aging population are significant. Naturally, the importance of fitness throughout a person’s life is a given. However, considering the impact fitness could have on the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease, these results are worth sharing. The surge in an aging population is set to have serious effects on our approach to healthcare and aged care. Already, countries such as Japan are struggling to find solutions to the problem. An aging population requires a high amount of care, and that required for dementia and Alzheimer’s sufferers is even higher still. The ability to slow down the effects of Alzheimer’s could play a significant role in reducing the necessary care an aging person may need.

Definitive Answers Have Not Yet Been Found

That said, the scientists behind the recent experiment have been quick to point out that, while there is certainly a correlation, they are yet to alight upon any definitive answers. Points such as how much exercise is needed to make a difference, and whether specific types of exercise have a greater effect than others, remain unanswered. However, given the progress the current experiment has made, we hope to see these questions answered in the near future. The ability to issue a definitive compilation of advice for aging people looking to make the most out of their fitness could prove extremely useful. What is perhaps remarkable is that this is the first time that scientists investigating these correlations have thought to base their methodology around V02 readings, rather than reported personal experiences. The resulting change in approach is responsible for this new available data.

What is clear is that, with an increasing senior population around the world, scientists and others in many countries are working to come up with a model that can support this greying population. Regardless of the possible effects it may have on the brain, higher fitness levels in old age allow for increased independence, and a reduced reliance on aged care. Naturally, there are limits. Sooner or later, we all die of something, and it may not always be a swift decline. There is also the danger that we may start shifting the goalposts: an increasingly able and healthy aged population could result in retirement ages being pushed back in order to try and force more productivity on those who are apparently capable of it. All these questions are becoming ever more pressing. But regardless of the implications a more able aged population may have, the benefits of fitness to both mental and physical health remain a reality.

Getting Exercise Is Increasingly Difficult for Urban Populations

What is possibly more of a pressing issue is addressing how an aging population is expected to get their required exercise. The presence of ‘Blue Zones’ around the world has long been seen as a clue regarding the most beneficial lifestyles for old age. Situated in parts of Japan, the Mediterranean, and other places, these are areas which have exceptionally long living populations. They are generally rural areas, and scientists point to the benefits that an active life (gardening, farming, walking) have for the populations there. But with an ever growing urban population, the number of options for old people (and indeed people in general) to get their required exercise is shrinking. In many parts of the world, cities are becoming increasingly unfriendly to the elderly.

The past twenty years or so have seen cities in developing parts of the world rapidly expand, with cars and motorbikes overtaking bicycles and public transport as the means of travel. As a result, many of these place are terrible for the elderly to travel around in. It’s easy for us to underestimate how unfriendly cities can be for an aging population. A hostile street environment can have serious effects on their ability to walk around, and to exercise comfortably. As compared to the long and happy life enjoyed by many older people in rural areas, cities can easily become inhospitable to the aged.

While it is certainly not at the level of a crisis, the growing aging population around the world does raise many questions for a younger generation. Advances in healthcare promise to add to an ever growing elderly population, increasing the demand for adequate care. Japan is confronting this problem already, and finding innovative ways to deal with it in a humane and compassionate way. Rather than seeking to keep the elderly working longer, and adding to the economy, they are searching for a way to provide them with the retirement they deserve. Considering current trends in the West, it seems unlikely that we’re set to see a similar thing here. It may be time for the elderly to consider upping their exercise in anticipation of a continuously raising retirement age.

Alejandro M

Lead Editor at DAPULSE, and Music Enthusiast.

Alejandro M


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