Improving brain health through exercise

With mounting evidence that exercise is good for the brain and may even slow brain ageing, Dr Sohail Al Rukn, President of the Emirates Neurology Society and neurologist at Rashid Hospital, discusses how aerobic exercise is just as good for the brain as it is for the body.

By Kamakshi Gupta, Communications Analyst at Dubai Health Authority

Forget exercising to fit into a dress size—look at that as a coincidental benefit. New research now suggests that exercise causes changes in the brain that boost memory and thinking skills. Additionally, let us not forget, exercise reduces the odds of developing a battery of lifestyle diseases: diabetes, blood pressure, stroke.

However, you probably know by now that the health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity include helping you lose weight, boost your mood, is healthy for your heart and reduces your risk of developing chronic diseases. But, if like most people, that is not motivation enough, perhaps a compelling reason would be facing the fact that exercise can get the brain working better. After all, who wants to deal with brain fog when you are old, right?  Old age comes with its own set of health issues. If we can protect our minds; let us start the marathon today, literally.

In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, seems to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Resistance training and other exercises do not have the same results. Researchers from the University also pointed out that physical activity is associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease and that regular physical activity may improve the performance of daily activities for people afflicted with the disease.

At a time when dementia is highly prevalent and it is estimated that by the year 2050, more than 115 million people will have dementia worldwide, this study seems extremely pertinent.

According to a top neurologist in Dubai, Dr Sohail Al Rukn, President of the Emirates Neurology Society and neurologist at Rashid Hospital, Dubai, UAE, “Exercise is known to help brain health and over the years, research after research is reinforcing the same thing. It is a known fact that parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who do not.”

Dr Rukn adds, “Exercise fosters the release of chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells; it helps stimulate blood vessels in the brain, and even helps in developing new brain cells. Brain health decreases as we get older. Since aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume, it can help maintain brain age.”

If this does not get you running, maybe knowing that exercise will put you in a good mood will. “Exercise also helps the body release chemicals called endorphins,” said Dr Rukn. “Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body. Regular exercise is known to improve your mood, reduce stress, reduce anxiety and even depression and improve sleep.”

The golden question is what type of activity or exercise should one follow. Dr Rukn says: “This research talks about aerobic exercises and while that is important it is good to mix up your exercise to include resistance training etc so that the workout is balanced. This will help achieve overall good health.

“This research has looked at walking and participants walked briskly for one hour, twice a week. However, it is important to note that this was for research purpose. General recommendation is half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week.”

Dr Rukn adds: “There are so many options for aerobic exercises and if individuals have other health problems it is best to seek a doctor’s advice before chalking out an exercise regime.”

Walking, running, swimming, cycling, rowing, boxing, kickboxing, and dancing are all different types of aerobic exercises that can provide a host of health benefits.

Discussing the importance of setting the right kind of goals when it comes to exercise, he says, “| think there needs to be a mindset change, especially in terms of understanding the right reasons for exercising. The younger generation seems to be hooked on to achieving a certain body shape, size, etc and while it is good to have goals, I think it is better to think of making exercise a regular habit. Once that is achieved, getting into shape, or improving physical and mental health become incidental.”

He adds a word of caution: “While exercise is important, healthy nutrition, mindfulness and adequate sleep also go hand-in-hand.  Opt for whatever motivates you but commit to establishing exercise as a habit, think of it like prescription medication.”

Profile pic caption: Dr Sohail Al Rukn, President of the Emirates Neurology Society and neurologist at Rashid Hospital