It is a common assumption that as we age, there is a higher chance of being diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Some individuals accept that dementia is an inevitable diagnosis when you are approaching the fourth act of your life. But what if by incorporating physical activities in your life, you could help reduce the risk? Keiro interviewed Dr. Kevin Bickart, a UCLA professor and neurologist, with a specialization in sports and behavioral neurology as part of UCLA’s BrainSPORT and Neurobehavior programs, on how finding a balanced and active physical lifestyle can help prolong your brain health.

man in blue sport coat holding a red weight

A Healthy Brain

Dr. Bickart said a healthy brain is one without any scars or shrinkage. Scars happen when there is a blockage of blood flow to certain parts of your brain, also known as strokes. Shrinkage, or atrophy, occurs as a normal part of aging but can accelerate with degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Accumulating scars or shrinkage over time can affect your brain health and lead to cognitive decline. The good news is that the biggest risk factors for developing these progressive conditions are within our control. Surprisingly, the greatest risk comes from how we live our lives rather than our genetics. Whether we have these scars or shrinkage depends mostly on environmental factors like drinking, smoking, eating poorly, having sleep disruptions, inactivity, social isolation, and so on. So how do we maintain a healthy brain?

Achievable Physical Activity Tips

Believe it or not, Dr. Bickart said years of research shows that staying physically active as you age is one of the best ways to improve your brain health and prevent cognitive decline, even more than just doing brain exercises. He mentioned that using mobile applications for braing health, or playing brain games, can only improve the brain’s ability to play that game. It does not seem to help people cognitively perform better in everyday life. For example, playing a memory game will only help with your memory for that specific game and not your overall brain health. It is more ideal to combine a cognitive exercise with a physical one to improve your overall brain health.

For those who are willing to try something new, Dr. Bickart highly suggests dancing as a potent promoter of brain health. “Dancing covers so many aspects of brain health. It involves a moderate intensity of physical activity, like exercise, requires cognitive processes to coordinate the dance moves, and it is also a great social interaction. The dance movements are not only a lot of physical and mental work, but you also need to have rhythm with another person.” 

Even if you do not think you are a good dancer, due to the low impact that dance has on your body, it is an activity that most people can participate in and enjoy. However, for those who are looking for a physical activity other than dancing, Dr. Bickart suggests looking for an activity that has a social component and can still have a similar impact.

How to get Started 

For those who aren’t quite active yet or have been inactive for some time, Dr. Bickart said to start very small and build up in intensity and duration over time. Having a progressive ramp-up routine is all about pacing and going over and not under your goals. By starting low and slow, you can slowly build the intensity and your stamina over time. When participating in any type of exercise, it can be helpful to create achievable goals for yourself in order to have a progressive ramp-up routine.

smart watch showing activity rings

For example, he suggested trying to hit 10,000 steps in a day as a starting point. Once you have this as a routine, he said you can move up to completing about 150 minutes of workouts over a three to four-day period. The workouts can be moderate level, since, as he explained, “You are doing something that is hard enough where you can’t speak normally in long sentences but you can still hold a conversation, which is a subjective way to know.” The workouts should be a balance of endurance training and resistance training which can improve not only your physical health but your cognitive health as well. The resistance training, which could include body weight exercises like planks, squats, or push-ups, also helps to protect against age-related fractures and other injuries.

Those who have participated in sports when they were younger may find picking up an activity easier than most. Dr. Bickart explained that studies show that whether the individual did sports in high school or not was a significant factor in seeing if they were physically active later in their life. He suggested that grandparents encourage their grandchildren to play sports, as it can be a factor for their grandchildren to also stay active and healthy in the future.

The Key is to have FUN – It’s not just Physical

As we age, it is still incredibly important to stay social. When older adults are isolated, they can find that their cognitive health is not as sharp, which could lead to a decline in health. Signing up for that dancing class or maybe rekindling a passion for a sport you did before, can help you not only stay physically active but socially too. In the end, Dr. Bickart said to make sure we have joy and fun in what we do. “I do not want to undersell the social, emotional, and spiritual aspects of brain health. These are what give us the motivation to persevere through obstacles from one day to the next and get up in the morning. If you do not get a sense of meaning from whatever activities you choose to promote brain health, then you are less likely to stick with them. Ultimately, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being lay the foundation for a balanced and active lifestyle, which protects against dementias and promotes overall brain health.”