Keeping Your Brain Fit: How Exercise Can Prevent Dementia

Exercise holds incredible short- and long-term benefits for the brain. Studies have shown that moderate to high intensity exercise (HIIT) can improve brain function and protect it even as we age. In fact, exercise may be the most powerful preventative medicine against Alzheimer’s, a common form of Dementia.

FightCamp wanted to delve a little deeper into how exercise – particularly boxing – helps our brains stay healthy and even stave off these devastating conditions. We spoke to neuropsychologist Dr. Julie Brody Magid, Clinical Director of the McLean Memory Disorders Assessment Clinic and an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School in the Department of Psychiatry.

“I run a memory clinic and exercise is one of our first recommendations for people,” says Dr. Brody Magid. “We prescribe five days a week of 30 minutes of moderately rigorous exercise, as approved by their primary physician.”

Dr. Brody Magid explains that making healthier lifestyle choices, which includes exercise, is truly one of the most important things people of all ages can do as an investment for their future. “This is an important way we focus on preventative care,” she says.

Looking at this more closely, the physical and mental exercise of non-contact boxing training arguably make it an ideal choice for maximizing this investment. The intensity of the workout combined with the focus required for complex boxing drills may have enormous benefits for the brain.

Strong Body, Strong Mind

A healthy body means a healthy brain. The physical impact of exercise keeps both your body and your brain in peak condition, well into old age.

“There are studies that show that having good physical fitness can significantly lower the risk of developing dementia and/or delay the onset of dementia by 7 to 10 years,” says Dr. Brody Magid. “There is nothing else that we know of that can have that kind of power in terms of postponing or potentially preventing the onset of this disease.”

She explains that the mechanisms behind the effectiveness of exercise are the reduction of inflammation – the source of most diseases, and mitigation of cardiovascular risk factors. Improving blood flow to critical brain structures also likely has a direct impact on brain health and cognition.

Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s and Vascular or Mixed Dementia:

  • High Blood Pressure
  • High Cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Substance Abuse
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Sedentary Lifestyle
  • Obesity

“If we can prevent these types of disorders by having people lead a healthy lifestyle – which is really predicated on exercise [and diet], we see people over their lifespan have less disease and fewer risk factors for developing a cognitive disorder,” says Dr. Brody Magid.

Ultimate Brain Booster

Prevention is not the only reason why people should feel motivated to exercise. The profound benefits of exercise on brain function can be measured at any age.

Dr. Brody Magid explains that there is a strong relationship between physical fitness and cognitive ability, and that increased cognitive ability ultimately reduces the risk of cognitive decline as we get older.

Exercise achieves this by increasing blood flow throughout the body, carrying oxygen and nutrients directly to the important structures in the brain like the cortex and hippocampus, a key structure in the function of new learning and memory storage.

Exercise Helps Brain Areas In Charge Of:

  • Organization
  • Planning
  • Flexible Thinking
  • Memory

Dr. Brody Magid references studies that compare cognition between young athletes (mean age of 28) and their sedentary counterparts. Overall endurance was measured by subjecting both groups to a walking endurance test. Then, MRI scans and cognitive tests were administered.

“Young people who had the best endurance also showed the most robust white matter, which is found in the deeper structures in the brain that help with efficiency of thinking and access to information,” she explains. “They had better memory, better processing speed, better intellectual ability, even their flexibility in thinking.”

Further studies show this effect in patients who already exhibit early-stage memory problems. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that becomes atrophied in Alzheimer’s patients, but Dr. Brody Magid explains that even a brisk walking routine helps improve cognition by increasing blood flow to this critical part of the brain.

“You can see the impact in patients with early onset memory problems: implement an exercise program in one group and not the other, and the exercise group cognitively functions better,” she explains. “This is one way that we try to promote functioning and quality of life in people who do have memory issues.”

Resilience and Recovery

In the same way that being physically fit will help you heal from illness or injury, being mentally fit can help your brain recover from an array of trauma. Building your brain’s resilience to potential trauma and everyday stressors is accomplished through building a cognitive reserve.

What Is Cognitive Reserve?

Cognitive reserve is essentially your brain’s ability to cope when faced with physical or mental stressors. It determines how well your brain adapts after an injury, major life trauma, or even at the onset of a neurological disease.

“One of the things that helps the brain to be resilient is what we call ‘cognitive reserve.’ It’s kind of like your savings account for a rainy day,” Dr. Brody Magid explains. “It allows your brain to be resilient in the event that something happens. So if you get an infection, get a concussion, if you develop some of these medical issues down the line, it shores your brain up to respond in a resilient way.”

What Builds Cognitive Reserve:

  • Education
  • Independent Learning
  • Socialization
  • Cultural Involvement
  • Exercise!

Of course, a solid cognitive reserve can only help but can’t completely prevent damage when serious stress and trauma do occur. When this happens, exercise is an essential part of the recovery process.

“There is a tremendous amount of data to support the benefit of exercise in brain recovery from trauma,” explains Dr. Brody Magid. “Let’s say you have a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or a tumor – some cells die or get injured, but areas of the brain remain intact. What exercise does is challenge the parts of the brain that aren’t damaged to compensate.”

Get Moving for the Mind

Without a doubt, exercise has a positive impact on short- and long-term brain health. Moderate to high intensity exercise like boxing training has been proven to boost brain power and may even delay serious neurodegenerative diseases like Dementia. The physical and mental challenges posed by a non-contact boxing workout may make it even more beneficial to the brain than other routine exercises like walking or running.

Dr. Brody Magid reiterates that the most difficult part is getting past the starting point and developing a self-care routine that works for your own lifestyle.

“I think it’s important to use [exercise] as it functions best for you,” explains Dr. Brody Magid. “It’s about a larger balancing act – how do you maintain a healthy lifestyle without adding too much pressure.”

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The Author: Mollie McGurk is a fitness enthusiast who has trained in boxing, HIIT boxing, kickboxing and MMA for over 10 years. Her local boxing gym has hosted champion instructors including the ‘Iceman’ John Scully and Israel ‘Pito’ Cardona. Mollie has also studied personal training through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) program.

Contributor: Julie Brody Magid, Psy.D. is the clinical director of McLean Hospital’s Memory Disorders Assessment Clinic in the Center of Excellence in Geriatric Psychiatry. She oversees clinic operations and conducts comprehensive neuropsychological evaluations with older adult patients who are referred for memory disorders and other cognitive problems. Dr. Brody Magid specializes in providing neurocognitive and psychodiagnostic evaluation and treatment for patients with traumatic/acquired brain injury, dementia, movement disorders, and neuropsychiatric illnesses.