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Tue, Jun 16 10:05am · What Does Exercise Do to Help the Brain? in Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

Elderly Couple Walking

We’ve all heard that exercise is good for the brain. Research has shown that exercise can improve thinking skills, like memory and executive functioning. Executive functioning includes mental processes such as concentration, planning, and multitasking. For a great primer on executive functioning, check out Dr. An Oskarsson’s post here.  But, what exactly does exercise do to our brains to improve our thinking?

Last year, Pauline Lucas summarized a fascinating study in which participants with MCI who exercised improved their thinking skills, and showed less shrinking of brain structures important for memory functions (like the hippocampus; check out that post here). Today, I would like to outline some of the ways exercise may change our brains to promote better cognition.

CARDIORESPIRATORY FITNESS

This is probably the brain benefit of exercise that we are most familiar with. Aerobic exercise (the kind of exercise that gets your heart rate up) improves blood flow to the brain, which allows for increased supply of oxygen and important nutrients to the brain.

ANGIOGENESIS

Regular exercise can stimulate the production of a protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and a peptide hormone called insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1). Both of these proteins play a role in angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels from existing blood vessels. With a greater density of blood vessels, there is more efficient blood flow in the brain.

NEUROGENESIS

Neurogenesis is the growth and maturation of brain cells. Exercise can stimulate the production of Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) which supports neurogenesis, specifically in memory centers in the brain.  Indeed, one study found that aerobic exercise (walking within target heart rate zone for about 40 minutes 3 times per week) led to increased hippocampal volume, which was associated with greater levels of BDNF (Erikson et al., 2011).

NEUROPLASTICITY

Neuroplasticity is the capacity for brain cells to change and adapt, including forming new connections between existing brain cells. When we learn new information or skills, new connections between brain cells are established. As the newly learned material is practiced and repeated, those new connections become stronger. Neuroplasticity is helped by not just cognitive, but also physical exercise.

 

These are just a few possible mechanisms among many in an exciting area of research on exercise and the brain. If you’re not already incorporating exercise into your daily routine, check out Dr. Shandera-Ochsner’s post here on how to get started.

What helps you exercise?

 

Kempermann et al., 2010 https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2010.00189/full
Hotting & Roder 2013 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0149763413001012
Erikson et al, 2011 https://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/3017.long
Budde et al 2013  https://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/2016/3643879/

Tue, Apr 14 8:31am · Tips to Cultivate Mindfulness at Home in Living with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI)

couple holding old photo

While social distancing, many of us face a common problem: our home environments are becoming too familiar.

Remember when the living room couch felt like an inviting place of repose after a completing the day’s errands? Now that that pandemic has taken hold of our routines, that same couch may feel less like a reward. Your house slippers, which you used to wear only at night, have now become your daily kicks. The rest of your footwear is gathering dust.

When we shelter in place, our relationship with our place of shelter changes.

Yet closer proximity to everyday, boring objects offers an opportunity to be intentional and mindful of the spaces we occupy. To borrow the language of art, we can make “the familiar strange.”

Within the confines of our familiar walls, you can still find many things to explore. Here are some ideas of how to apply the principles of mindfulness to unlock familiar strangeness.

The Museum of Your Home

We all accumulate a lot stuff over time. Consequently, we are surrounded by artifacts from our lives that have gone unnoticed for years. Take a moment to identify and appreciate an object from your past. Do you have an heirloom from a parent? Do you have a drawing from a grandchild? Do you have a series of portraits on your fireplace mantle that you usually pass without notice? What is the story of that item? Share that story with a friend or family member, in person or via video call, and invite them to share their object’s story with you.

Mindful Activity

Identify a regular activity where you can commit full presence and awareness. Washing dishes is a great activity to cultivate mindfulness because it’s a multi-sensory experience, and it’s usually done on autopilot. When washing dishes, pay attention to the smell of the soap, the temperature of the water, the sound of the silverware clanking against the sink, the texture and color of each dish.  We can use the same principle when washing our hands (for 20 seconds each time throughout the day).

Date Night

Staying at home shouldn’t stop you from sharing a romantic evening with your partner or yourself. Transform your dining room by turning on ambient light, breaking out the special tableware, playing relaxing music, or trying a new recipe. You may even want to change out of those house slippers!

Consuming News

While it’s important to stay updated on local and state recommendations for staying safe, be intentional of where and when you consume news. For some, being inundated with reports about every aspect of the pandemic can be a source of stress. Consider restricting media intake. Watch for a half hour in the morning and/or afternoon, then save your nights for reading or other relaxing activities. Consider designating a stress-free zone (such as the bedroom) and avoid consuming news in these spaces.

We would love to hear your creative ideas on how to be intentional about your living spaces!

Join members sharing creative ways that they are spending time at home in the COVID-19 group.