There is no medication that stops the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. But a large review of studies shows one activity does what no drug can: It actually reverses the brain disease.
Over the years, much research has shown that exercise improves memory and thinking ability in healthy people. But there was little data on whether it helped people who already had the disease.
University of Connecticut researchers wanted to find out if exercise improved brain function in Alzheimer’s patients…and if so, they wanted to know if aerobic or strength exercise was best.
The scientists analyzed more than 900 recent Alzheimer’s studies. They included thousands of patients. They used a scale of 1 to 8 to mark the effect of the different forms of exercise on improving brain function. A score of 2 or less is considered small, 5 is medium, and 8 is large.
The review showed that exercise definitely helps Alzheimer’s patients. And aerobic workouts were shown to be far more beneficial than strength training.
Aerobic exercise scored a 6.5 on the brain-function improvement scale. Strength training, such as weighlifting, scored less than 2.
Why Aerobics Helps Alzheimer’s Patients
Considering there are no known drugs or other medical treatments to reverse Alzheimer’s, “to be able to say there is any improvement is a pretty big deal,” noted lead author Gregory Panza.
He is a graduate student in kinesiology at the University of Connecticut. He presented the findings at the recent American College of Sports Medicine 2017 Annual Meeting.1
Researchers do not know for sure why aerobic exercise fights Alzheimer’s more effectively than strength training. But they theorize that a cardio workout—exercise that gets your heart and breathing rate up—better stimulates the release of serotonin and brain-derived neurotrophic factors. These two compounds support the growth and survival of brain cells.2
Go High Intensity for Bigger Brain Benefits
Aerobic exercise comes in many forms…running, biking, tennis, swimming, dancing, cross-country skiing, stair-climbers, rowing…the list is almost endless.
To get the most benefits, we have long recommend high-intensity versions of these workouts. High-intensity interval training (HIIT) gives you a greater health return for the amount of time you put in. Even applying the technique to walking provides huge health improvements.
HIIT makes your heart and brain stronger than other types of workouts.
The formula for HIIT is simple. You can apply it to any sort of cardio exercise.
Warm up for 3–5 minutes, doing your favorite form of aerobic activity…then exercise as hard as you can for 30–60 seconds.
Then slow the exercise for the next minute or two to catch your breath.
Repeat this process 5–7 times and then cool down for at least two minutes.
Besides getting more heart and brain benefits, studies show that HIIT is better than longer, more moderate workouts at controlling blood sugar, improving blood vessel function, and lowering blood pressure.3
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