doctor with patient

Exercise & Neurodegeneration

July 27, 2020

We know that incorporating regular sessions of physical activity into your everyday routine is beneficial for health, and in more ways than one; not only can exercise help you lose weight, but it can also reduce anxiety, decrease your risk of certain cancers, reduce the risk of developing diabetes, help to increase balance and coordination, and build strength within the muscles and bones (1). But did you know that exercise can also help to reduce neurodegeneration that occurs with age?

Neurodegeneration is not probably a word you hear often, although its quite a prominent disease. If we break the word down, it’s essentially referring to the breakdown or loss of function within nerve cells. This condition has been primarily touted in diseases like Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Alzheimer’s, just to name a few. With the number one risk factor of neurodegeneration being age (#2 is diabetes!), we can see just how problematic this can be within a growing population of elderly people. Granted, there are plenty of pharmaceutical interventions out there to help reduce some of the symptoms of neurodegeneration – many of those being prescription drugs – but unfortunately, these come along with highly unwanted side effects (and very short window of improvement). (2)

Thankfully, there is another way to combat this breakdown of nerve cells within the body as we age…and that is with physical activity! Studies have shown that consistent exercise improves overall cognitive function, which is fantastic news for those looking for a more natural way to stay healthy and combat mental decline that can go along with aging. Based off information from the Alzheimer’s Association, one out of every three people older than 65 passes away due to complications from Alzheimer’s, or some other neurodegenerative disease resembling dementia. If we can use physical activity to lower these statistics while reducing the need for pharmaceutical intervention, then quality of life can be improved as we age as well! (3)

So, how exactly does exercise help to slow the neurodegeneration that can happen as we get older? Studies have shown us that one of the main components of this question leads back to the mitochondria within the body; aging decreases the functioning of mitochondria, which are essential in order to think, learn, and retain memory. Exercise comes into play by improving the overall functionality of the mitochondria, and has even been shown to help reduce inflammation as well! (4). Also of critical importance is that your mitochondria are integrated into how you regulate blood sugar. Insulin Resistance is when you start to lose the ability to get blood sugar inside our cells, so therefore it accumulates outside and begins to damage tissue. As this continues the damage builds up and critical cells like neurons become compromised, and die off faster. Exercise stimulates these mitochondria to help you optimize insulin/glucose within the cell and keep the inflammation in check! This is so critical it is estimated that 80% of the root cause of Dementia in our country is “Type 3 diabetes”, or insulin resistance of the brain.

Studies have also shown that, regardless of age (from children to the older generations), there is a positive correlation between exercise and doing well with cognitive assessments. One particular research segment showed that when a group of older women were divided into groups of fit versus sedentary, the women who were fit had much better cognition than those who were sedentary. (5) A large link here between the improved cognition and better fitness levels is an increase in blood flow to the brain during exercise; this increase in blood flow can be one of the key elements in determining how well exercise helps to improve brain functioning, although more research needs to be done to determine just how this happens. (3)

The question is, what type of exercise needs to be performed in order to obtain the benefits of improved cognitive function and decreased neurodegeneration? While more research needs to be presented in order to see the full depth of this particular question, some studies have noted that activities like dancing, yoga, interval training, and aerobic exercise are all optimal ways to improve brain functionality. (4) One study compared balance exercises to strength training, and found that there was greater blood flow during testing of cognitive function with those participants that did strength training more so than balance training (6), and it appears as though workout programs that include multiple areas of fitness – i.e. balance, strength, aerobic endurance, mobility – are going to be more beneficial in improving cognitive function as opposed to one particular area of fitness by itself. (4)

Living in the Denver and Boulder metro area provides us with an abundance of opportunities to find exercise that we enjoy. I remind clients daily one of the only ways you will stick to an exercise program is to truly enjoy what you are doing! Community is also essential and we all know that a class, exercise partner or gym is a great motivator to keep on target with daily exercise.

Figuring out how to optimize brain health is essential in not only delaying neurodegeneration, but also to improving one’s quality of life and increasing health and wellness parameters. It’s clear that exercise, across multiple capacities, is capable of slowing down cognitive decline, and should be a vital part of a treatment program for those looking to prevent further breakdown of nerve cells and their counterparts. If you’re needing more assistance on how to incorporate fitness into your routine in order to help boost cognitive functioning, speak with your local functional medicine doctors in Boulder!

Yours in health,
Ian Hollaman, DC, MSc, IFMCP

PS Can’t seem to get the energy to exercise right now? Is there something interfering with that initial bump in energy to get you going? I’ve found many times the lack of exercise is NOT the primary culprit to jump-start your energy system! If there are metabolic problems, gut, hormone or brain imbalances many times those need to be addressed first. Don’t beat yourself up if you are so tired you can’t exercise! Call us and we can look deeper into areas like your thyroid, cortisol/adrenal health, blood sugar and gut problems like food sensitivities or bacterial overgrowth. Once we can get you started on a customized plan most of our clients find it dramatically easier to start an exercise program they can maintain and enjoy!

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