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How Exercise Boosts Your Brain and Your Body

Our primary care doctors in Delray Beach often suggest that our patients engage in regular exercise. Several recent studies suggest that even a little bit of exercise can work wonders for both the mind and body.

Little Moves, Big Gains

By now you’ve probably heard the standard recommendation that, for maximum health gains, everyone should engage in 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. The trouble is, studies show most of us (about 53 percent) don’t manage to get in that much.

So researchers decided to look at whether any kind of movement is worth it. After reviewing 196 studies involving more than 30 million people, they found that just 75 minutes a week—or 11 minutes a day—conferred significant health benefits.

The research, published in February in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, showed that this amount of exercise lowered the risk of premature death from any cause by 23 percent. It was also enough to reduce the risk of developing heart disease by 17 percent and cancer by seven percent. For some cancers, including stomach cancers, the risk dropped as much as 26 percent.

Those who are currently sedentary would benefit the most, Søren Brage, Ph.D., co-author of the paper and head of the Physical Activity Epidemiology group at the University of Cambridge, told NBC’s, Today Show.

“Physical activity encompasses not just sweating it out in the gym,” he said.

“It is broader than that and includes also walking or cycling to work . . . just getting up and using the big muscles in the legs, moving to stimulate the metabolism—it is how we are designed, and if we do not use our muscles, they waste away,” he explained.

Brain Booster

And it seems that lack of exercise can affect the brain as well as the body.

In another study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in January, researchers found that those who skipped exercising in favor of eight minutes of sitting or seven minutes of sleeping saw their cognition scores (the ability to process and recall information) decline by one to two percent.

Conversely, replacing sitting or lying down with just nine minutes of vigorous exercise was linked to a one percent increase in cognition scores.

Aviroop Biswas, an assistant professor of epidemiology and an associate scientist at the Institute for Work & Health in Toronto, who was not involved in the study, told NBC News that the link between exercise and brain performance likely results from how the body’s cardiovascular system works.

“When you’re active, you’re essentially improving the strength of your heart and you’re improving the ability of your heart to pump blood across your body and to one of the most important organs: your brain,” he explained.

Prior Research

Whether we’re talking about the body or the brain, numerous studies have shown how exercise benefits both.

A 2022 study by the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) in Washington and George Washington University, for example, tracked nearly 650,000 veterans, with an average age of 61, for nearly 10 years.

They found that the risk of Alzheimer’s decreased between 13 percent in those who were determined to be slightly more fit to 33 percent in those with the highest level of cardiorespiratory fitness.

Other studies have found remarkable benefits from exercise on numerous diseases and conditions.

One study published in the journal BMJ compared exercise alone versus drug therapy alone and found that for heart disease, diabetes control or prevention, stroke rehabilitation, and treatment of heart failure, regular physical exercise was just as effective as prescription medications in treating many of these conditions.

Other conditions that have been shown to benefit from exercise include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), intermittent claudication (leg cramps while walking), depression, osteoarthritis, dementia, gallstones, diverticulitis, peripheral vascular disease, and 12 kinds of cancer.

Some is Better Than None

And the important thing to know is that every little bit helps.

For example, a 2020 study examined data on nearly 250,000 people in their mid- to late 60s with mild cognitive impairment. The researchers found that those who exercised for as little as 10 minutes a day before and after their diagnosis slowed their risk of progression to Alzheimer’s by 18 percent.

Even those who didn’t start exercising until after being diagnosed were still able to reduce the risk of progression by 11 percent.

Another study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology confirmed numerous earlier studies that found any regular movement can result in improved health. It showed that replacing just 30 minutes of sedentary time with 30 minutes of light physical activity was associated with a 17 percent lower risk of early death.

“If you replace 30 minutes of sitting time with 30 minutes of light-intensity physical activity—so something like a casual stroll down the hall—that can lower your risk,” Keith Diaz, a certified exercise physiologist and assistant professor of behavioral medicine at New York’s Columbia University Medical Center, told CNN. Diaz was the lead author of the study.

“Some exercise is better than none,” Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, told The Washington Post. He was the lead researcher for a JAMA Network Open study which found that previously inactive adults ages 50 to 71 had a 35 percent lower mortality risk with just four to seven hours of light activity per week.

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