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Can Exercise Reverse the Ravages of Alzheimer’s?


Dr. Heather Sandison, a leading expert in Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia care, believes that reversing Alzheimer’s isn’t just possible—it’s already happening in multiple patients. In her new book, Reversing Alzheimer’s: The New Tool Kit to Improve Cognition and Protect Brain Health, Sandison provides a comprehensive guide to improving brain health and managing Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise as Medicine for the Brain

One of the core elements of Sandison’s program is the emphasis on exercise as a crucial lifestyle factor in preventing and controlling dementia. Research has consistently shown that physical activity can reduce the likelihood and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Exercise strengthens the heart and cardiovascular system, reducing the risk of arterial plaques that might disrupt blood flow to the brain and contribute to dementia.

The Hormetic Effect of Exercise

Exercise is known as a hormetic stressor, meaning it introduces beneficial stress to the body. This stress forces the body to use up resources, and while tissues can be broken down slightly during exercise (such as muscle fibers tearing during weight lifting), they grow back stronger. This process makes the body—and the brain—more resilient.

Exercise benefits several root causes of neurological disease. It improves cardiovascular capacity, boosts circulation, reduces stress through the release of endorphins and lowers cortisol levels, and can be a social activity that combats loneliness and isolation.

Categories of Exercise to Prioritize

Sandison categorizes exercise into four types that are essential for brain health. These can often be combined in a single session to maximize benefits.

Aerobic exercise, or “cardio,” includes activities like walking, jogging, biking, dancing, and swimming. It strengthens the heart and improves blood flow to the brain. Sandison recommends getting 150 to 200 minutes of aerobic exercise each week, with the goal of reaching 70-85% of your maximum heart rate.

Strength Training

Strength training involves using weights or resistance to build muscle. This type of exercise is linked to brain health because muscles generate brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes neuroplasticity. Aim for at least two strength-training sessions per week using resistance bands, light dumbbells, or body-weight exercises like squats and lunges.

Dual-Task Training

This form of exercise combines physical movement with a cognitive challenge, such as walking while talking, listening to a foreign language lesson while biking, or attending a class that requires attention to cues. Dual-task training helps enhance cognitive function by engaging both the body and the mind.

Contrast Oxygen Therapy

A more unique form of exercise, contrast oxygen therapy alternates the amount of oxygen in the air you breathe while you exercise. This method encourages the tiny blood vessels in your body and brain to open up, improving blood flow. Although it requires specialized equipment and is not for everyone, it can be incredibly valuable for cognitive function.

Exercise Recommendations for Alzheimer’s Patients

  • Aerobic Exercise: Engage in activities that get your heart rate up, aiming for 150-200 minutes per week.
  • Strength Training: Incorporate exercises that build muscle, particularly in the legs, hips, and torso.
  • Dual-Task Training: Combine physical activities with cognitive tasks to challenge your brain.
  • Contrast Oxygen Therapy: For those able and willing, this therapy can significantly enhance blood flow and cognitive function.

Exercise is a powerful health intervention that can profoundly reduce the risk of chronic diseases, including Alzheimer’s. It addresses multiple causal factors of dementia and supports overall brain health. Making exercise a regular part of your life can lead to significant improvements in cognitive function and overall well-being.

Have you incorporated any of these exercise strategies into your routine? What differences have you noticed in your cognitive or physical health? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below! Your insights could help others find effective ways to improve their brain health and manage Alzheimer’s disease.


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