Regular readers of this blog will know that one of my favourite subjects, apart from my obsession with road cycling is neuroscience and how cycling can play a role in slowing cognitive decline. I read this week about some new research that looks at why exercise has such a protective effect on our brains.
The researchers from the University of California have identified how physical activity improves brain health and helps people with Alzheimer’s disease. According to their study, published earlier this week in the Journal of Neuroscience, exercise might play a role in decreasing immune cell activation.
The brain contains special immune cells, called microglia, activate to clear debris and foreign invaders from the brain. But too much activation can trigger inflammation, damage neurons, and disrupt brain signalling. Microglia also help direct the production of new neurons.
This inflammation has been suggested as a reason why brain function often declines with age, and these changes can be even worse in the case of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s. Animal studies have shown that increasing physical activity reduces abnormal microglia activation, but the link has not been established in humans.
Other research studies
When I started researching this topic I found lots and lots of references to research studies in this area which is great news. I love that researchers are focusing on preventative methods like exercise for treating insidious diseases like Alzheimer’s rather than looking at drug therapies alone.
Some of the other studies I found included:
Harvard Medical School scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital found that the workings of the hormone irisin shows it can spur the cognitive benefits of exercise, holding promise for treating cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease. In the study published in Nature Metabolism, the research team report that irisin, secreted by muscles during exercise, could be an effective therapeutic for addressing deficits of the brain that result from Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study out of Arizona State University shows that patients who took part in a regular exercise program saw a significant reduction in cognitive decline. These promising findings support the idea of promoting cardiovascular fitness in people with Alzheimer’s to maintain a healthier memory.
And in another US study, researchers found that aerobic exercise may reduce cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The research, published as a pilot study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, supports aerobic exercise as an intervention for people with this condition and lays the ground for future, larger studies to corroborate the initial findings. In this study, cycling was the aerobic exercise that they used for their participants.
Cycling is great for your brain health
All of these studies together add to the body of work in this area. The great news for cycling fans is that cycling is great for your brain health. It’s not the exercise benefits, but also the social benefits for those of you who ride with others. For me, cycling is a large part of my social life, both while I’m riding and at the post-ride café visit.
The lesson from all this marvellous research is that we should all keep moving. Obviously, my favourite form of exercise is cycling but I know it’s not for everyone. I encourage everyone to keep moving whether it be walking, running, resistance training, gym workouts – just don’t stop exercising. I consider it my anti-ageing strategy. Read about more of the benefits in my past post here.
How much exercise do you need to reduce cognitive decline?
I heard a radio interview this week which was about the new research from the University of California I mentioned earlier. The interviewers asked Associate Professor Michael Woodward who is an advisor to Dementia Australia how much exercise you need to do each week to enjoy the benefits. He said that you should aim for five 40 minute sessions of vigorous exercise per week. It sounds like a lot but it’s actually only three hours and 20 minutes each week in a total of around 112 waking hours for the average person.
In my case, I usually ride four times per week and each of those is more than 40 minutes. That means I only need to do one extra which I always do with resistance training once a week and a run or two. Easy. If I can do it, anyone can. I challenge you. You won’t ever know the outcome, and there’s certainly no guarantee that you won’t suffer from cognitive decline as you age. I’m going to take a bet that these clever researchers are right.