Want an all-natural way to lift your mood, improve your memory, and protect your brain against the decline that comes with aging?
Exercises that get your heart pumping and sweat flowing — known as aerobic exercise, or “cardio” — have significant and beneficial effects on the brain and body, according to a wealth of recent research, including two new studies published this month.
“Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart,” according to an article in a Harvard Medical School blog.
Here are some of the ways cardio is such a boon for our bodies.
The newest study, published March 14, suggests a potentially powerful link between regular aerobic exercise and a lower risk of dementia.
A study published this week in the journal Neurology suggested that women who were physically fit in middle age were roughly 88% less likely to develop dementia (defined as a decline in memory severe enough to interfere with daily life) than their peers who were only moderately fit.
Neuroscientists from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden studied 191 women whose average age was 50 for 44 years. First, they assessed their cardiovascular health using a cycling test and grouped them into three categories: fit, moderately fit, or unfit.
Over the next four decades, the researchers regularly screened the women for dementia. In that time, 32% of the unfit women were diagnosed with the condition; a quarter of the moderately fit women did. But only 5% of the fit women developed dementia.
Despite that strikingly positive finding, the research only showed a link between fitness and decreased dementia risk; it did not prove that one caused the other. Still, the work builds on several other studies that suggest a powerful tie between exercise and brain health.
Workouts may protect your immune system from some age-related decline as well.
For a small study published at the beginning of March in the journal Aging Cell, researchers looked at 125 amateur male and female cyclists aged 55 to 79. They compared those individuals with 75 people of a similar age who rarely or never exercised.
The cyclists were found to have more muscle mass and strength, and lower levels of body fat and cholesterol than the sedentary adults. The athletic adults also appeared to have healthier and younger-looking immune systems, at least when it came to a key organ called the thymus.
The thymus is responsible for generating key immune cells called T cells. In healthy people, it begins to shrink starting around age 20, and T cell production also starts to drop off around that time.
The study found that the thymus glands of the older cyclists looked like they belonged to younger people — their bodies were producing just as many T cells as would be expected from the thymus of a young person.
“We now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier,” Janet Lord, the director of the Institute of Inflammation and Aging at the UK’s University of Birmingham, said in a statement.
Cardio tones your muscles.
It was initially believed that when it comes to building muscle, cardio paled in comparison to exercises like resistance training, which are designed to help you gain strength. But a recent review of 14 studies published in the journal Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews found that on average, men who did 45 minutes of moderate to intense cardio 4 days a week saw a 5%-6% increase in leg muscle size.
“Aerobic exercise, if done properly, can lead to as much muscle growth as you’d expect with resistance exercise,” Ball State University exercise scientist Matthew Harber, who authored the study, told Men’s Fitness.