Does exercise make you smart and smarter?

The summer holidays are over. Children are back to school. Parents are back to work and I am back to writing.

Today, we will explore studies which show that people who do regular physical exercise improve their brain power and can improve their chances of avoiding dementia and cognitive impairment. Whatever the age of the person, physical exercise is critical to vigorous mental health.

How do we define cognitive function?

From birth to old age we have a capacity for cognitive function. That means each person is capable of learning or remembering a certain amount of information. During early childhood, most people are best able to absorb and use new information, with most children learning new words, concepts and ways to express themselves. This capacity to learn slows down gradually as we get older.

Cognitive function involves mental process of perception, thinking, reasoning and remembering. Studies done on individuals over the age of 65 have shown that individuals who undergo cognitive training show substantial benefits and these benefits last for many years.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2010), author Dr. Laura E. Middleton suggests that early life physical activity is important to late-life health and in particular in preventing late-life cognitive impairment. The sooner you start being physically active, the better it is.

The study suggest that those who took up regular exercise as young adults were 30 per cent less likely to suffer late-life cognitive impairment compared with women who remained sedentary. This study looked at the physical activity levels of 9,000 women at various ages, from adolescence to senior years.

Physical activity can help the brain build new connections and repair itself, can increase overall brain volume and build enough mental reserves to compensate for the loss of brain power as we age.

An article in the Scientific American Mind (July/August 2009), titled Fit Body, Fit Mind? says your workout makes you smarter and you stay sharp into old age.

“We are used to thinking of intelligence as largely a matter of genetic inheritance, but that is not the whole picture. What you do affects your mental well-being: staying physically and mentally active helps us stay sharp as we age,” says the article.

Although the idea of exercising cognitive machinery by performing mentally demanding activities – popularly termed the “use it or lose it” hypothesis – is better known, a review of dozens of studies shows that maintaining a mental edge requires more than that. Other things you do – including participating in activities that make you think, getting regular exercise, staying socially engaged and even having a positive attitude – have a meaningful influence on how effective your cognitive functioning will be in old age, says the Scientific American Mind article.

As we age, we have an increased desire to be independent in everything we do. If we are able to maintain our cognitive function then we can enhance our quality of life for many years without having to rely on others. For this we have to prepare from a very early age. At an age when we think nothing can ever go wrong in our minds or bodies.

Studies have shown that most active women had a 30 per cent lower risk of cognitive decline. Walking distance was related to cognition but walking speed was not. Even moderate levels of physical activity can serve to limit declines in cognition in older adults. Some studies show aerobic exercise may be the real key to brain fitness and also helps with circulatory system.

The message is clear: if you want to be smart and stay smart into old age then start exercising early in life and make it a lifelong habit.

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