Participants at an 80s-style aerobics class at Wednesday’s launch of Alzheimer’s Australia’s research paper on physical activity and fighting dementia

Regular physical activity leads to a reduced risk of dementia, a healthier brain and improved memory, planning and thinking skills, according to a paper released this week by Alzheimer’s Australia in partnership with Fitness Australia.

The paper, Physical Activity for Brain Health and Fighting Dementia, outlines how physical activity improves brain health and provides tips for getting started, tracking progress and staying motivated.

It has been developed using local and international research and launched to coincide with Dementia Awareness Week, which this year has the theme ‘Brain Health – Making the Connections’ and runs from 16 to 22 September.

While the benefits of physical activity for the health of the body and heart are well known, exercise also has a significant positive impact on brain health, said Dr Maree Farrow, who co-authored the paper with University of Melbourne senior research fellow Dr Kathryn Ellis.

“Whatever your stage of life, being fit and healthy matters,” said Dr Farrow, a research fellow with Alzheimer’s Australia Vic.

The brain requires adequate blood flow to function well and enable the lifelong growing of new cells and connections within the brain that help continued learning, she said.

“Physical activity supports these important aspects of brain biology. Whilst it is normal for the brain to shrink a little as we grow older, this age-related shrinkage is reduced in people who engage in regular physical activity,” Dr Farrow said.

The paper refers to US research which found around 13 per cent of Alzheimer’s disease cases worldwide (more than four million) were attributable to physical inactivity.

If a quarter of inactive people became more active, it could prevent nearly 1 million Alzheimer’s disease cases, the researchers found.

Similarly, it cites an Australian study that showed Australian dementia prevalence would be reduced by 11 per cent, or 100,000 people, by 2051 if 5 per cent of inactive people became active every five years.

Alzheimer’s Australia estimates over 320,000 Australians are living with dementia in 2013 with the number expected to grow to 900,000 by 2050 without a significant medical breakthrough.

The best type of exercise

The authors wrote that while it was not possible to provide a specific physical activity formula to ensure optimal brain health and a reduced risk of dementia, the combined evidence showed many forms of physical activity were beneficial.

Because different activities focus on varying functions of the body, the most benefit will be gained from regularly engaging in a mix of aerobic or endurance exercise, strength or resistance training, flexibility exercises and balance exercises, they wrote.

They recommend making exercise a permanent part of daily life, having realistic goals, starting slowly and tracking progress.

Becoming more physically active can be as easy as going for a regular walk or participating in a structured activity, said Lauretta Stace, CEO of Fitness Australia, the national association for the health and fitness industry.

Fitness Australia is working to build better linkages between registered exercise professionals and health professionals so that they are confident in directing their patients to structured physical activity that can meet their patients’ needs, she said.

“The fitness industry must be a central part of the preventive health agenda and that’s why we are engaging with organisations such as Alzheimer’s Australia,” Ms Stace said.

View Dr Farrow’s paper here: Paper Number 36 – Physical activity for brain health and fighting dementia

See Alzheimer’s Australia’s Your Brain Matters program for more evidence-based advice remaining brain healthy: yourbrainmatters.org.au

Find a Fitness Australia registered service provider here: www.startexercising.com.au

For more on Alzheimer’s Australia’s support services, education and information, see www.fightdementia.org.au or call the National Dementia Helpline on 1800 100 500.

The author’s tips for staying motivated and active

  • Do activities that you enjoy and make physical activity fun
  • Exercise while listening to your favourite music or audio book, or watching TV
  • Do activities with family or friends to motivate each other or join an exercise group
  • Make physical activity a priority and part of your daily routine
  • Use healthy incentives or reward yourself when you achieve a goal
  • Keep it interesting and try new activities, locations or people
  • Focus on the benefits, like feeling stronger, having more energy, and being able do things easier or for longer than before
  • Remind yourself of the benefits for your brain, body and heart

 

 

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