Everything we’ve discussed up to this point is still on the table. Most of it even more so. Learning, growing, and healing aren’t abilities you’ll stop needing in your life. An elastic brain is a brain that can go the distance. It adapts to new challenges, heals minor damage, and resists major damage.
Author Nassim Nicholas Talib coined the term “Anti-fragile” to describe “things that gain from disorder.” He wrote a book about it. This term doesn’t describe an immovable body, frozen and immune to stress. It describes a system that thrives under stress, as all good systems do. A body (and brain) that take the inevitable wear and tear as catalyst for growth and improvement.
We’re not just talking about keeping the wolf from the door. We’re talking about growth. New skills, capacity, and swiftness. More neuroplasticity, at whatever age you are. Next year too.
Growth At Any Age
A 2018 Journal of Sports Medicine study indicated that exercise improves cognitive function in adults over 50, regardless of their current status. Patients across the spectrum of age, with or without noticeable cognitive decline, improved function. The study used both aerobic and resistance training, reinforcing the idea that a balanced fitness plan is the most impactful.
BDNF and Dopamine regulation don’t get less important with age. Lack of drive or motivation is a common complaint in older populations and BDNF availability drops off with age. This makes these neurotransmitters even more valuable resources.
Almost all of the building blocks and tools your brain uses become more valuable with age. That value is driven by scarcity. But unlike other assets in your life, investing early will only get you so far. You’ll have a good baseline of fitness if you start young, but there’s no retirement from exercise.
If it helps, think of exercise as having a “salary” that increases every year, sometimes drastically, for life. Hard to pass up that deal.
Isn’t Decline Inevitable?
The effects of aging are a reality we all have to deal with, and just like the rest of the body, the brain is impacted. But the degree of inevitability, and the level of decline that we consider “normal” isn’t supported by the scientific literature.
Our thinking skills decline with age. At least, that’s a pattern modern humans tend to follow. Just as with age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia, the brain tightens and shrinks. It loses that precious plasticity and shrinks. Old neural pathways become harder, locking in habits and thinking patterns.
Keep in mind that exercise helps manage stress, anxiety, and depression which all increase the risk of dementia. Even people who possess the APOE4 gene variant which increases susceptibility to Alzheimer’s should see a reduced risk from exercise. A JAMA study from 2017 indicated that other strong genetic risk factors to any type of dementia could be similarly reduced.
The hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that takes care of memory, shrinks with age. A reduced hippocampus increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Guess what greatly reduces that shrinking? Aerobic exercise. Thirty minutes, four or five times a week seems to do the trick.
Consider a baby. They need to push their brain to grow rapidly, acquiring a staggering amount of skills. Carving brand new pathways and growing neurons for memory, speech, motor skills, and more. They do this with movement. They flail around, grabbing at things, and making noise. As a result, they learn. Their brain grows and neural paths connect.
You have the same human brain they do, plus the benefit of experience. Dust off the cobwebs, warm that brain up, and stretch it back out. Exercise is your foam roller.
Your capacity to grow and heal your own brain is far greater than you might think.
I’ve laid out my, admittedly abridged, argument for intentional exercise as a key component of brain health. Here’s your optional homework reading list:
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J Ratey, MD with Eric Hagerman
- The Athlete’s Way: Training Your Mind and Body to Experience the Joy of Exercise by Christopher Bergland
- The End of Stress as We Know It by Bruce McEwan with Elizabeth N. Lasley
The evidence linking exercise with brain health is staggering at this point, and there are new studies every year expanding what we know about how exercise affects neurotransmitters and neuron growth.
There’s one last thought I want to leave you with. It’s really the same argument I’ve been making, but from a different angle. Remember that many brain related difficulties are not considered a “normal, inevitable part of life” by researchers. Especially in areas of cognitive decline.
Does exercise actually “boost” the brain’s functionality? Or is the lack of exercise part of what’s dragging us down?
We don’t think of food as a “cheat code” for life. It’s understood that we must eat to live and thrive. Isn’t that the sort of slot exercise should occupy? Not a bonus. Not a supplement. A basic requirement for your brain to function.
Interested in learning more? Check out the rest of the Exercise and the Brain series:
Author Max Steele is an ACE certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition level 1 coach at Hyatt Training. He believes in the transformative power of sustainable nutrition, strength training, & game night. He aims to reignite self-discovery in those who doubt their capabilities and to prove the crucial role of “play” in the pursuit of deep health. Learn more about Max, or get in touch with him by emailing us at Go@HyattTraining.com.
Hyatt Training is a team of certified, enthusiastic and innovative personal trainers in Portland, Oregon. To read more fitness related posts like this one, follow this link.