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Sharpen your mind with exercise

man in lab coat smiling
University of Southern Queensland researcher Dr Edward Bliss.

Committing to regular exercise can boost the brain health of people most at risk of developing dementia, new research by the University of Southern Queensland has revealed.

One hundred minutes a week of aerobic exercise - less than the global physical activity recommendations – improved the brain function of sedentary, older, obese adults.

The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, showed for the first-time positive changes in cognition and brain blood vessel function in older people with metabolic syndrome following exercise training.

People with metabolic syndrome, characterised by obesity, elevated blood pressure, lipid imbalance and high blood glucose levels, are at greater risk of developing cognitive impairment and, potentially, a neurodegenerative disease, such as dementia.

With 1.1 million Australians predicted to suffer from dementia by 2058, lead researcher Dr Edward Bliss said the findings could help unlock the secrets of the complex disease.

“Our results indicate that improvements in brain blood vessel health, which may reduce the risk of dementia, and cognition, a symptom that characterises dementia when significantly decreased, can be made with as little as 100 minutes of exercise per week,” he said.

“This is encouraging news for those at an increased risk of developing a dementia diagnosis because 100 minutes of exercise per week, which is less than 15 minutes a day, is very achievable, even if you’ve never exercised before.”

Researchers examined 27 obese and physically inactive participants aged between 50 and 80.

The participants were randomly divided into two groups, with one taking part in about 100 minutes of exercise per week on average for 16 weeks.

To measure brain function, the researchers performed two brain blood vessel measurements on the participants using a special ultrasound technique called transcranial Doppler ultrasound.

They found the brain’s blood vessels response to a physical stimulus was about 35 per cent higher in those who performed the exercise training than those who didn’t.

The overall response of the brain’s blood vessels response to cognitive tasks was also 10 per cent higher in those who exercised. The same increase was also found in total cognitive function.

“The bottom line is we should get moving because ageing reduces the function of the brain and its blood vessels, and moving improves both of these,” Dr Bliss said.

“The key, however, is to make sure you mix the intensity of exercises, from moderate to high – you need to be challenged.

“Being physically active is one of your best weapons in protecting yourself against developing dementia and supporting a healthier ageing population.”