Specialty Program - Youth

Movement and the Brain: the Key to Slowing Cognitive Decline

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December 20, 2023

The connection between movement and the brain is a powerful one and becomes more critical as we age. Cognitive decline occurs during the aging process, but exercise has proven effective in promoting cognitive function and delaying the progression of neurodegenerative disease.

You are interested in keeping your brain as healthy as possible right?

Well the act of moving will slow your brain aging and keep it firing on all cylinders.

We will cover three areas related to neurological functions where movement and the brain’s ability to slow cognitive decline may occur.

1. Executive function

2. Antidepressant properties

3. Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Reduce brain aging by increasing Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor

Before we get into the specifics of how movement and the brain are connected, we need to explain what Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is because it is the most significant factor in maintaining brain health.

It is expressed in those areas of the brain associated with cognition, including the hippocampus, cerebral cortex, amygdala, and cerebellum.

BDNF is a type of protein that plays an essential role in the survival and growth of nerve cells. It's crucial for long-term memory development and neuroplasticity.

Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change and adapt in response to experiences.

Exercise has repeatedly shown to increase BDNF because when you exercise, your brain needs to adapt quickly to new situations and stimuli, requiring more neuroplasticity.

Periodic squatting exercises may help preserve your brain power

Executive function—the processes in the brain that enable people to plan, focus, remember and multitask—may suffer when we sit for long periods without moving our bodies.

A new study in the Journal of Applied Physiology finds that doing just one minute of squatting exercises periodically during long periods of sitting may help preserve the brain's cognitive and executive function.

The results of the study showed that after three hours the group that exercised (one minute of half-squat exercises every 20 minutes) maintained internal carotid artery blood flow and increased both accuracy and reaction time for difficult tests of cognition relative to uninterrupted sitting.

In addition, the participants self-reported more significant decreases in concentration and larger increases in mental fatigue during prolonged sitting than when they exercised.

BDNF a potential biomarker for depression

Just like there are biomarkers for aging, research is showing BDNF as a potential biomarker for depressive disorders.  

Evidence suggests that people with mild depressive disorders have peripheral and central BDNF levels lower than non-depressed individuals.

While pharmacotherapy is often the standard and has its place in treatment protocols, exercise should be integrated to enhance outcomes or can be used as a lifestyle change to combat relapse into depression.

Protective effect of irisin against Alzheimer’s disease

Discovered in 2012, irisin, an exercise-generated muscle factor, is a potential hormone for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) prevention and treatment.

Irisin sharpens learning memory by inducing the production of BDNF, lowers the production of inflammatory factors, protects neurology, and ameliorates AD symptoms by improving insulin resistance.

Exercise-produced irisin has been proven to intervene in AD by crossing the blood-brain barrier, inducing BDNF production, and initiating neuroprotective effects on brain function.

A meta-analysis (combined results from several studies) that included 16 studies with more than 160,000 participants found a 45% reduction in the risk of developing AD due to the regular practice of physical activity.

What is the optimal amount of exercise to increase BDNF

Moderate levels of exercise enforce the human body's antioxidant defense system, but extreme levels of exercise lead to the generation of more oxidative stress than our system can defend against.

Young, healthy men:

Long duration (about 40 minutes) moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise (at least 65 percent max heart rate) elicited the greatest effects on BDNF levels – nearly one-third higher than before exercising.

Young healthy women:

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) was performed three days per week for four weeks. Each HIIT session consisted of three to five cycling bouts of 30 s each at 80% maximum aerobic power, followed by four-minutes of recovery at 40% maximum aerobic power.

Serum BDNF concentrations in the HIIT group increased approximately 12% compared to control.

Older adults men and women (minimum age 60 years)

Meta analysis showed:

An increase in BDNF concentrations was significant after strength training and combined aerobic/strength training but not after (low-to-moderate intense) aerobic exercise training.

elder woman lifting dumbbells

Tons of data have shown a positive connection between movement and the brain and slowing the effects of cognitive decline.

Because movement increases BDNF, a key factor in improving cognitive health, adopting a lifestyle that includes movement is a powerful step in maintaining brain health as you age.

At Stretch Affect, our expert movement health specialists have spent years crafting the ideal workout for each of our clients to stay on top of healthy aging. Our goal is to help you continue to do what you love well into the future.

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