As we age, our bodies may experience a number of seemingly inevitable changes that can significantly impact our quality of life: increased lethargy, decreased alertness, like memory is “slipping.” Although many of these age-related responses are socially considered as normal patterns of aging, there are various lifestyle strategies that can act as preventative measures in combating these anatomical changes. The intensity of these conditions can be lessened through engaging in a habitual aerobic exercise program.
What is aerobic exercise? Aerobic exercise can be described as what we generally denote as “cardio” (referring to cardiovascular) which is any sustained light to moderate activity that engages the heart and lungs. There is a wide range of possibility in choosing an aerobic activity: running, cycling, swimming, dancing, walking, rowing, group aerobics classes, and recreational sport are all examples of cardiovascular exercise.
We have long been aware of the extensive list of benefits that a consistent, reasonable, and safe exercise routine can provide. Implementing some aerobic exercise into your day can positively impact your heart health, mental health, and overall physical fitness. More recent discoveries suggest that there is also a specific link between aerobic exercise and the prevention of hippocampal volume loss.
Let’s explore what it means to decline in hippocampal volume as we age! The hippocampus, indicated by the yellow outline in the above image, is a small, curved, apparatus in the brain that is associated with the formation of memories. The hippocampus also plays a role in the regulation of emotions and learning: all vital components of our social consciousness.
Over time, our hippocampus loses some of its volume. As the apparatus shrinks and suffers from a loss of mass, the organ loses some of its functionality as well. The ability to form new memories and recall old memories may become inhibited. Losing hippocampal volume with age also increases the risk for dementia and depression because of the critical role that the hippocampus plays in memory formation and emotion regulation. This is just a fraction of the physiologic explanation as to why our memory becomes impaired with age.
Lessening hippocampal volume loss through aerobic exercise as a preventative measure is possible! A study that focused on the degeneration of the hippocampus explained that the hippocampus typically decreases 1- 2% in volume per year. The same study discovered that folks involved in a year long walking program not only maintained their hippocampal volume, but increased it by 2% in one year! Wow — these individuals reversed an age related loss in volume by 1 to 2 years! Therefore, engaging in a aerobic exercise routine can subsequently reduce the risk of dementia, improve spatial memory, and slow degenerative changes in the brain that contribute to memory loss.
The aforementioned “year long walking program” started with week one: walking 10 minutes per day. During the following 7 weeks, walkers made a weekly, incremental, 5 minute increase in exercise time (Week 2 = 15 minutes, Week 3 = 20, and so on). On the seventh week, walkers completed 40 minutes of walking per day. They maintained 40 minutes of exercise per day for the remainder of the study. This is an exercise prescription that functions as a good starting point for anyone interested in getting aerobically active! Incorporating a doable, daily walk into our agendas can provide us with positive increases to our mental health, physical health, and memory function.
Getting started on an exercise program can often seem daunting. Setting small daily/weekly goals, working with a trainer or health professional, and recognizing even the smallest of successes are all good ways to begin. Feel free to reach out to us at the Maine Strong Balance Center; we will be happy to act as a resource during this process by providing you with tips along the way! And as always, it’s essential to check in with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine. Thank you for reading!