A run in the park helps you think better. Gymnastics with weights, on the other hand, serves to train the memory. But the top prize, among the forms of exercise that are good for the brain after the age of 50, goes to the
Tai Chi. Coordination, precision of movements and relative simplicity make this discipline close to the martial arts an elixir of long life for neurons. While it is true that any sport is good for any age, a group of researchers from the University of Canberra has attempted to draw up a guide to the various disciplines and their benefits for the over-50s: a critical age, the Australian doctors write, ‘for reducing the risk of dementia or other neurodegenerative diseases’. But also, without necessarily having to think about Alzheimer’s, to enjoy the positive effects of sport on mood and the growth of new neurons.
The study – published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine – analyses 39 recent publications and summarises the results. It divides sports disciplines into two large families: aerobic and strength. The former include running or brisk walking, swimming, cycling and in general all activities that can be performed for long periods of time at the cost of moderate breathlessness. Strength sports, on the other hand, are those that strengthen muscles mainly through the use of weights.
“Aerobic activities,” the researchers explain, “are especially beneficial for the cognitive functions of the brain. That is, they improve the ability to reason, understand ideas, learn, make connections, use their creativity. Two practices that cannot be easily classified, such as Tai Chi, would have the same effect. The latter, the scientists write, ‘is an unconventional sport but is particularly suitable for people who are not completely physically efficient’. When it comes to strengthening the memory (which, it may be a coincidence, is often compared to a muscle), strength sports have ‘a pronounced effect’.
For the effects of exercise to be felt on the brain, Australian doctors warn, one must reach the threshold of 45 to 60 minutes of at least moderate activity (a minimum of breathlessness must be felt). On frequency, only one motto applies: as often as possible. Even a single day of sport is preferable to the armchair.
In fact, gymnastics acts on the brain by promoting the division of neurons (especially in the hippocampus, the area related to memory and learning) and increasing its plasticity (i.e. the ability to form new connections). It then promotes the birth of new blood vessels (thus improving the delivery of nutrients to brain tissue) and reduces inflammatory processes.
An American study, in June last year, had gone in search of the link between the benefits of sport on the muscles and those on the brain. Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health had written in Cell Metabolism that a particular enzyme (cathepsin) B is produced by the muscles after exertion, manages to cross the almost impenetrable blood-brain barrier and here it goes into action, promoting the birth of new neurons. In January 2016, in the Journal of Physiology , a group from the Finnish University of Jivaskyla had measured the effect of various sports on hippocampal neurons in rodents.
The greatest proliferation coincided with aerobic sports, followed closely by strength sports. No advantage (for the brain) came from high-intensity training, consisting of short but very vigorous efforts.