Charles Dickens, one of the most brilliant voices of Victorian literature, had an unusual way of sparking new ideas. After a long day spent writing at his desk, the world-famous author would regularly set out on the streets of London and walk at a brisk pace. On these daily walks he would find himself dreaming up new characters and devising the next plot twist of a novel in progress.
Dickens’ walks were not just casual strolls. They were intensive physical feats that could last for hours. According to his own testimony in The Uncommercial Traveler, “My last special feat was turning out of bed at two, after a hard day, pedestrian and otherwise, and walking thirty miles into the country to breakfast.”
Dickens’ exercise habits may seem extreme, but they likely had a significant effect on his creative output. Neurologists have discovered that aerobic exercises such as walking, pedaling, swimming or jogging are associated with an array of cognitive benefits and that older adults have just as much to gain as any other age group. You may not be able to walk 30 miles like Dickens, but whatever you can do to elevate your heart rate for an extended period is likely to make you feel better and think more clearly.
Exercise Promotes Vascular Health in the Brain
There is a correlation between unhealthy capillaries in the brain and unhealthy synapses. When synapses get old from continually firing signals from one neuron to the next, they start to wear down and shrivel. This process results in cognitive decline, and seems to accelerate when the capillaries that deliver blood to the brain are unhealthy. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “autopsy studies show that as many as 80% of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease also have cardiovascular disease.”
Aerobic exercise burns calories, reduces cholesterol and accelerates the heart rate, keeping blood vessels happy. As the heart pumps blood throughout the body, the capillaries in the brain are replenished and fortified, providing neurons with ongoing “fertilizer” and ensuring that their synapses remain strong.
There is compelling evidence that exercise promotes the growth of new brain cells – in rats, at least. Earlier this year, researchers from the University of Jyvaskyla tested a large group of mature rats, dividing the critters into three test groups. One group jogged long distances on a wheel every day. Another lifted tiny weights with their tails (yes, you read that correctly!) while climbing a wall, and a third group engaged in interval training. A fourth control group did not exercise at all.
The scientists wanted to monitor which form of exercise led to the most significant growth of new brain cells – a process called “neurogenesis.” They were able to track brain cell growth by injecting the rats with a special dye that would mark new cells in the hippocampus, the part of the brain we use for memory and learning. Ultimately, this study found that aerobic exercise can “double or even triple the number of neurons that appear afterward in the animals’ hippocampus compared to the brains of animals that remain sedentary.”
While neurologists have long suspected that exercise was important, they now believe that it can actually stimulate the growth of new cells in the hippocampus. Incidentally, the hippocampus is the first area of the brain to be attacked by Alzheimer’s disease.
Chronic stress overloads the body with cortisol, the hormone that triggers our “fight or flight” response. When stressful situations overwhelm us, our ability to think abstractly and perform complicated tasks diminishes. Too much cortisol over the long term has been linked to adverse effects such as high blood pressure, depression and dementia.
Exercise helps the body fight stress in multiple ways. When we are active, the body releases a stream of endorphins that can improve mood throughout the day. At the same time, many find that exercise has a relaxing effect. The reason for this is somewhat counterintuitive. Because exercise puts strain on the body, it catalyzes the release of cortisol, the “stress hormone.” Over time, the regimented exposure to cortisol during exercise helps us to increase our threshold for stressful situations encountered in daily life.
If you live for your intellectual pursuits, or simply enjoy having a sharp mind, you should embrace a routine of exercise. At Youville, we offer structured exercise opportunities six days a week. Residents can start their mornings with Stretch & Flex, Balance Challenge, Yoga or Broadway Seated Dance. In the afternoon, residents have the option to join Walking Club during the spring and summer months, or a group exercise class led by Forever Fit.