Exercise and Mental Health, Part 5 – As We Age

This is the final part of the series covering how exercise can positively affect mental health. I thought it would be good to tie up the series by looking at how exercise can protect our mental health as we age, along with some general recommendations. 

The main two neurodegenerative diseases that I decided to look at the research on were Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Both are diseases with no cure. There is also no way to definitively predict who will and won’t get them. However, the good news is that the risk of developing either of them can be lowered by exercise and physical activity.

A review published in 2016 (Cheng) looked at research that examined the relationship between exercsie and Alzheimer’s came to the conclusion that frequent exercise, especially aerobic, seems to have a significant neuro-protective effect – it’s a real safeguard for mental health.

I found it to be interesting, although challenging reading. One passage jumped out at me:

In a nutshell, physical activity protects brain health and fuels neuroplasticity by reducing the likelihood of vascular diseases and improving cerebral perfusion (e.g., plaque deposits in arteries, atherosclerosis, hypertension, and stroke) improves respiratory function, stimulates growth factors particularly brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor-1, and downregulates oxidative stress and inflammatory responses. It also reduces the brain’s exposure to neurotoxic factors, including beta-amyloid and excessive glucose. For these reasons, it is no wonder that the cognitive benefits of physical activity appear to be limited to aerobic exercise. At the same time, it is important to note that many physical activities also have mental stimulation properties such as those that require eye-hand coordination and visuospatial memory, thus further augmenting their effects on cognitive functioning.

This demonstrates just how complex the interactions between exercise and the brain are. I won’t pretend I understand any of them, but it’s amazing the number of different pathways exercise will take to keeep the grey matter in good health. The same is true for other bodily systems and functions; exercise can have a myriad of effects on. The section quoted above reminded me of an amazing micro-blog post by Paul Ingraham:

Exercising at the right intensity is biologically “normalizing,” pushing systems to work the waythey are supposed to work. Biology is all about clever homeostatic mechanisms [Wikipedia] that nudge tissue state back to average. Those systems all rely on negative feedback loops based on molecular signalling (hormonal, neurological, etc), and exercise produces a lot of stimulation … raw “data” to feed into the negative feedback loops, which is normalizing.

A good analogy for this would be to think of a car. A car not driven much, even if it is a fairly new (less than 5 years old), will likely not be in as good condition as one the same age that has been driven a lot and serviced properly. Leaving a car standing for a lot of the time and only using it for short trips does it no good due to the infrequent rapid expansions and contractions of the metal bits in the engine.

Getting a car up to motorway speeds and a good operating temperature keeps things moving and operating as they are designed to – the engine spends more time expanded, warm and operating efficiently, the battery stays charged, the suspension doesn’t take a pounding, and proper servicing keeps everything operating well. I only know this thanks to a client who’s an experienced mechanic (when quizzed, he said that he’d take a well-maintained, high mileage car over one of a similar age with very few miles on the clock any day and that there would be probably more cause for concern with the low mileage one)!

Exercise is your body’s motorway driving – it keeps your metabolic engine functioning properly and this has positive knock-on effects in all bodily systems, from brain health to blood glucose control. So get in the driving seat - you can have a dramatic impact on your brain and future-proof your mental health to some extent.

The other neurological illness that exercise perhaps can reduce the risk of is Parkinson’s. A study by Xu et al. that examined this relationship found that those who were active and participating frequently in “moderate to vigorous activities” could decrease their risk of Parkinson’s by up to 40%. Important to note is the intensity and frequency of activity – it’s got to be at least a moderate intensity and it needs to be a few times a week.

The authors also noted that the exact mechanisms by which exercise could reduce the risk of Parkinson’s is unclear. It always amazes me; the body is so complicated and the understanding of precisely how exercise benefits mental health is still pretty much unknown.

1.     Staying generally active is necessary as well as making an effort to exercise

2.     Try and frequently exercise at a moderate to vigorous intensity

3.     Do a mix of aerobic work and strength training

4.     Start with something you enjoy and can sustain

5.     A good coach can really help

6.     The benefits accumulate of exercise and mental health and lead to an upward spiral in all aspects of wellbeing over time

Follow the above if you aren’t already and I’m sure you’ll notice a difference in how you feel. I'd be intrigued to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

I hope you have found this series of blog posts useful. If you have, please share with anyone you think may benefit from them.