Prevention: Physical Activity
Physical activity reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, two factors that can cause dementia. And physical activity can help the brain function better. Research has shown regular physical activity helps blood flow faster and better to the brain, and may even stop the size of the brain from decreasing. Brains shrink with age; and brains with dementia shrink more.
Aging can also lead to blood vessel dysfunction, which leads to restricted blood flow and brain size decreases. This can also lead to a decline in brain health. Exercise that helps maintain blood flow to the brain can help stop blood vessel dysfunction, resulting in healthier brains.
Regular physical activity such as hiking or walking is associated with higher brain size. One study found walking 6 to 9 miles per week is enough to maintain brain size. This moderate, regular exercise helps blood vessels increase in diameter and allows more blood to flow to the brain, maintaining brain size and helping brain cells function.
What Physical Activity is Best for Reducing the Risk of Dementia
The best physical activity is the activity you can easily do on a regular basis. Focus on building an activity plan into things you already do. And, as frequently as you can, plan ahead and schedule movement into your calendar. Writing the activity on a paper calendar or scheduling it into a digital calendar will help you remember to do it. Try to scheduling a month’s worth of weekend hikes in advance. Sign up for a weekly dance class. Change a regular date with a friend into a walking date or bike trip.
Another way to stay physically active is to start early in the day. Build an element of movement into your morning routine. This could be stretches you do after you get out of bed, taking your dog on a morning walk, or performing a sun salutation each day while the coffee brews. Another way to make activity more routine is to incorporate movement into your daily commute. Walk or bike to work when possible, and build times for walking into your daily errands.
Heart and brain health experts also recommend building time for movement during what’s called transition times. These are periods we regularly experience while waiting for other activities. This could be something like doing a small exercise or stretching while you’re waiting in line, waiting on the phone, or waiting at a traffic light. Another transition time is during commercials in a television program. Doing stretches or planks during commercial breaks is one way to add regular physical activity to a sedentary activity.
In addition to these small changes, it’s important to build time for physical activity during the week. The ideal activities for brain health involve a level of aerobic activity like walking or hiking, dancing, and playing sports. The aerobic activity doesn’t have to be intense, but it’s recommend to strive for a level of moderate to vigorous activity. One way to know if you’re reaching this level is by doing the “talk test.” Try accomplishing a level of activity where it would be difficult to sing to a friend but you could speak a complete sentence. The activity should sometimes be strenuous enough that it’s possible to speak a few words, but difficult to tell a long story. Hitting this level of exertion at least once a week is a good goal to have. If this level of physical activity is new to you, speak with your doctor about the best way to build a physical activity schedule.