Like many people in midlife, I recently had that sudden realization that my health sucked. Not in a life-threatening way, but an overall sense that things could be a whole lot better. Too many years spent at a desk, too little work/life balance, too much stress, and too many excuses not to do anything about it had slowly taken their toll. When I finally took the time to notice, I was in poor shape, overweight, had aches and pains and general fatigue.
So, for the past year or so, I’ve been spending time exploring ways to improve my overall health and wellbeing.
Brain health is at the top of my list as my family has a history of dementia. I found a glut of brain training tools being offered to baby boomers, as a means to age-proof our brains. The companies tout benefits that include improved memory, increased IQ, reduced or delayed cognitive decline and even reduced odds of dementia. (The latter claims caused one of the biggest sellers of these tools to be fined last year for misleading advertising).
There is some consensus among brain scientists that these tools do sharpen our abilities to retain information, improve language, hand-eye coordination, and reasoning among healthy adults. But other activities like reading the newspaper, writing letters, visiting a library, attending a play or playing games, such as chess or checkers, can also contribute to a healthier brain. And neuroscientists say don’t expect any miracles.
For that, they point us in another direction — good, old-fashioned exercise.
Being fit during young adulthood and middle age can have a protective impact on our brains later in life.
As if we needed another reason to get off the couch! We know a sedentary lifestyle increases our chances of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses. But regular physical activity also prevents brain shrinkage, aids in the formation of new brain cells as well as enhances our cognitive skills, improves memory, boosts mood, and reduces stress.
In fact, being fit during young adulthood and middle age can have a protective impact on our brains. Studies are showing that having a low fitness level in midlife is associated with smaller brain volumes and poorer cognitive performance nearly two decades later. So, having a regular exercise routine now is an important step towards ensuring a healthy brain 20 years from now.
And, you don’t have to become a gym rat to realize the benefits. Just walking at a moderate pace for 40 minutes three times a week can improve connectivity in the brain. Any similar type of moderate activity works to help you increase performance on cognitive tasks such as planning, scheduling, dealing with ambiguity, working memory and multitasking.
No one wants to spend their years in retirement dealing with health issues. That’s not what we spent all those years working for. I don’t know about you, but I’m lacing up my running shoes right now. It’s never too late to start.
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