Give your brain a work-out

9 July 2012

Give your brain a work-outExperts say that the key to preventing Alzheimer’s may lie in being physically active. Personal trainer Jason Anderson reveals the exercises that give your brain a workout as well as your body.

There is mounting evidence to show that exercise could be one of a number of lifestyle factors that protect against developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Physical fitness is also believed to slow down the progress of Alzheimer’s. One study published in the journal Neurology in 2008 by Dr Jeffrey Burns of Kansas University USA found fit people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s had bigger brains than those who had done little exercise. It’s believed that exercise helps prevent brain shrinkage in Alzheimer’s and delay the onset of dementia symptoms.

How exercise helps

Exercise may protect you from developing Alzheimer’s disease in three ways by:
Increasing blood flow to the brain
Exercise may improve brain function by increasing blood flow to the brain; poor blood flow can impair memory and hasten the symptoms of dementia.

Helping to maintain your weight and promoting better insulin control
Insulin resistance can lead to obesity and diabetes, and may also be destructive for brain cells. Exercise increases insulin sensitivity, resulting in lower insulin levels, and the increased ability to store sugars (as energy) in the muscles and not in the fat cells.

Challenging the central nervous system (your brain and spinal cord)
Exercise can challenge the neuro-muscular system to control the body’s segments during strenuous whole-body movements. There are a variety of sensory organs in the joints and muscles that provide sensory information to the brain as to where the body is in time and space. The technical name for this is ‘proprioception’. 

Alzheimer’s and insulin

Insulin is the primary hormone in the body vital for energy expenditure and storage. Prolonged insulin production, as a result of adopting a high-starch carbohydrate lifestyle, is also linked to obesity and Type 2 diabetes and, due to the destructive behaviour of excessive insulin on the brain cells, it is also linked to Alzheimer’s.

Maintaining more consistent blood sugar levels by eating small, frequent, low-starch carbohydrate and fibre-rich meals throughout the day will help control insulin and obesity – but exercise can also increase insulin sensitivity. 

Exercise and the central nervous system

“To improve proprioception (see above) and balance, we need to challenge the three systems of balance that work to keep us upright and stable,” advises personal trainer Jason Anderson.

“The three systems of balance are the muscles, the sensory organs within them and the vestibular apparatus in the ears and the eyes. All of these work together to allow the body and brain to make the correct movement adjustments to maintain balance.

“Taking out any one of these will create a deficit and subsequently increase the challenge on the other two. This is why an ear infection and closing your eyes can disrupt your balance,” Jason adds. 

Five ways exercise may help your brain

Go barefoot
There are many sensory organs in the feet that provide the central nervous system with vital information about the surface we are interacting with. This in turn allows the brain to make more effective movement decisions.

Perform free-weight exercises
Working out on exercise machines that provide artificial stability for you will downgrade your body’s natural stability and balance mechanisms (so try standing unsupported and using free weights).

Try one-legged exercises
We spend most of our time on one leg during walking and running, so it makes sense to mimic this in our exercise choices.

Work harder for shorter periods
Higher intensity exercise increases insulin sensitivity and promotes fat loss. Shorter bursts of exercise are not only easier to fit into the day but also reduce the stress placed on the body experienced with long-duration exercise.

Close your eyes
Closing the eyes as you exercise in a safe environment will heighten the challenge on the other two systems of balance i.e. the ears and muscles. 

Three exercises to try

Here are some exercises specifically designed to improve balance and proprioception.

  1. One-leg stand with head movements
    Stand on one leg – raise the other leg off the ground and let it dangle
    Keep the hips level and chest lifted and rotate head slowly from side to side Change legs and repeat on the other side
    This can be repeated moving the head forwards and backwards
    Perform this exercise daily for up to 60 seconds per leg using varied head movements.
  2. One-leg squat with forward reach
    Stand on one leg, raise the other leg and let it dangle
    Squat down gently by bending the knee slowly
    Keep the chest lifted and reach forward as you bend the knee
    Pause at the bottom and then push up with hip back to the starting position
    Change legs and repeat on the other side Perform daily – 5-15 repetitions on each side.
  3. One-leg squat with forward toe reach
    Squat down on one leg by bending the knee and keep the chest lifted
    As you squat down, reach forward with the toe of the opposite foot
    Return to start position and repeat on the other side
    Try to increase the range of motion of the reach, without the supporting heel lifting
    Perform daily – 5-15 repetitions on each side.


If you have any questions about these exercises or how to use exercise to help your general fitness, then you can ask our panel of experts.