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3 Ways Movement Can Optimize Your Brain Health After 60

Research continues to find a strong connection between mobility and decline in brain health. It’s been long established that exercise and movement help promote mental health and fight symptoms of depression, anxiety, and even PTSD.

But we continue to learn that the benefits of movement extend beyond the management of mental health conditions and into the realm of prevention and brain optimization. 

For example, research on dementia risk factors consistently finds that loss of strength, walking speed, and balance are strong predictors of a future decline in brain health.

Given all of this information, it’s impossible to deny that our body and mind work together. The good news is that we can use this mounting evidence to our advantage.

Your Movement Habits as a Window to Your Brain Health

Your movement provides a window to your brain. As a physical therapist, I can watch an individual’s movement patterns to determine where they might be having areas of brain decline. For example, difficulty keeping balance with walking can indicate difficulty with planning complex tasks or visuospatial reasoning.

Not only can your movement habits paint a picture of what might be going on with your brain health, but you can also use movement as a tool to optimize your brain.

The great news is that you don’t have to become a marathon runner or powerlifter to reap the brain-health benefits. Research has found that a formal exercise practice is not necessary, it’s just about getting up and moving often.

Adopting a Movement-Based Lifestyle to Promote Brain Health

There are ways of moving that can have a bigger impact in promoting brain health than others. One of the most common mistakes I see people make is adopting the habit of mindless movement or exercise.

Jumping on a treadmill in front of a TV provides a greater benefit than sitting on the couch, but also misses a huge opportunity to optimize brain health along with moving more.

As biomechanist Katy Bowman would argue, the solution isn’t to add more formal “exercise” to your day but instead to focus on adopting a movement-based lifestyle. It doesn’t help to focus on exercise for 30 minutes a day only to be sedentary during your non-exercise time.

“To increase the benefits of physical activity, strive to put more movement back into your life. Choose to walk instead of drive, seek out active chores, and learn to move more during your non-exercise time.” –Katy Bowman

Adopting the habit of mindful movement throughout your day will help you get more bang for your movement buck. It starts with learning how to observe yourself.

Understand the ways in which you move, and even more importantly, how you aren’t moving. Make your movement a mindful practice for maximum benefits.

The Benefits of Movement on Brain Health

People who move more throughout their day report a higher sense of well-being. They have more energy, sleep better, have better memory, and report more positive feelings about their lives.

Studies have found that even just having a higher perception and more positive feelings associated with health can make you less likely to develop chronic disease.

So, don’t wait to get started living a movement-based lifestyle to optimize your brain health. This type of living is accessible to anyone.

Here are 3 ways movement can help you optimize your brain.

Increased Circulation to the Brain

Moving more gets the blood flowing throughout your body, which benefits all of your organs but is most impactful for your brain.

Poor brain circulation can cause “brain fog” and, in the most extreme cases, the death of brain cells. It’s likely you’ve experienced brain fog and a lack of clarity at some point. This feeling is a good indication to get yourself up and moving.

Movement enhances brain health by improving circulation throughout the brain. Having better circulation means better delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the brain, which are critical for its function. The more you disperse your movement throughout the day, the more often you can promote circulation to your brain.

Formation of New Neural Pathways and Strengthening Existing Ones

For every new movement you try, you form new neural circuitry. It’s similar to learning to play a musical instrument or adopting a new language. You can use the connections from your muscles to your nervous system to help stimulate various parts of the brain.

The less variety you have with your movement, the less stimulation your brain is getting. Adding variety to your movement can be as simple as going for a walk in a different environment.

Trying different ways of getting on and off the floor. Or trying different arm positions during a squat. Every little variation you add stimulates your brain in a different way.

Exercise and movement have also been shown to help increase brain volume through the formation of new neural circuitry. This happens through a combination of hormone stimulation and increased blood flow to the brain.

This boost in volume has been noted in areas of the brain that help with memory, reasoning, and learning.

Promoting Specific Hormones to Enhance Brain Health

Physical activity is so powerful that it’s been demonstrated to be more effective than anti-depressants in cases of depression.

Of course, there is a time and a place where medication is the right choice, but physical activity can both enhance the activity of medication and provide a sustainable strategy for managing and preventing mental health conditions.

Regular movement helps release hormones like endorphins and serotonin, which help lift your mood. It also helps promote dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain which helps with attention and focus.

An increase in these hormones helps reduce levels of cortisol, or stress hormones, in the body. Lower levels of cortisol have been linked with a lower risk of chronic disease.

The more you get yourself moving, the more you can reap these benefits.

Adopting a movement-based lifestyle is one of the most powerful ways to optimize your brain health and set yourself up for a healthy future. Keep it simple. Just focus on moving and moving often.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

How often do you move mindfully? How often do you perform mindless exercise? Which chores can you use to enhance your activity level throughout the day? Please share with our community.

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Lisa Stege

For me, I find that I spend too much time in front of my computer (like I’m doing right now).
In a few weeks, I will be moving to a new location that is very walk-friendly, and I am planning to start my mornings off with a lovely walk. There are options to make my walk shorter or longer, depending on the route I choose, so I can lengthen my walk as my fitness level increases. I am very much looking forward to it.

Renee Lovitz

I try to move more every day. I tend to sit and watch TV too much. Going to move more after reading this article! Thanks!!

Lynne Freeman

I find that in January to mid-March every year I just sit in front of my TV and don’t move much, day in and day out. Having being born and lived in the Southern Hemisphere, the grey skies, plenty of rain, cold and lack of light in the Norther Hemisphere where I now live really affect me. Thank you for this article, it has made an impact on me. I know what happens to me, but slide into activity without really realizing it – your article and the explanation of why and what occurs in our brains has made me more aware that today is the day I get myself into nature and just move more.

Lynne Freeman

Oops, meant I slide into inactivity 😡

The Author

Brittany Denis, PT, DPT, is a physical therapist, movement coach, and educator empowering clients through the aging process with mindful movement. She inspires all adults to bring a growth mindset to aging both in her movement studio and online.

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