It’s well known that chronic, heavy drinking damages your brain and actually speeds up the brain shrinkage that occurs with age. This is associated with memory loss, symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline.
Physical exercise is touted as one of the key ways to protect against brain shrinkage and other age-related brain changes, and now it appears it may help protect against some of the brain damage caused by drinking.
Exercise May Help Protect Your Brain From Alcohol-Related Damage
Among 60 long-time drinkers, those who were the most physically active had less damaged white matter in their brains compared to those who were less active.1The white matter is considered the “wiring” of your brain’s communication system, and is known to decline in quality with age and heavy alcohol consumption.
Although the study didn’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship, the researchers concluded that “exercise may protect WM [white matter] integrity from alcohol-related damage,” continuing:2
“We cannot say whether exercise would necessarily improve white matter damage in individuals with a history of heavy drinking.
However, our findings in combination with the many well-established positive physiological and psychological benefits of aerobic exercise suggest that aerobic exercise could be potentially helpful for individuals with history of heavy alcohol use.”
Exercise Protects Your Brain From Shrinkage, Slows Cognitive Decline
One of the effects of chronic heavy drinking is that it speeds the shrinkage of key regions in your brain. Exercise is useful in this area, as research has shown that people who engaged in the most physical exercise showed the least amount of brain shrinkage, a protective effect that was even greater than that offered by mentally stimulating activities.3
Exercise encourages your brain to work at optimum capacity by causing nerve cells to multiply, strengthening their interconnections and protecting them from damage.
During exercise, nerve cells release proteins known as neurotrophic factors, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, which activates brain stem cells to convert into new neurons. BDNF also triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health.
Scientific evidence shows that physical exercise helps you build a brain that not only resists shrinkage, but also increases cognitive abilities.4 In one review of more than 100 studies, both aerobic and resistance training were found to be important for maintaining cognitive and brain health in old age.5
Moderate exercise may even reverse normal brain shrinkage by 2 percent, effectively reversing age-related hippocampus degeneration, which is associated with dementia and poor memory, by one to two years.6 On the other hand, the people in the control group who didn’t exercise saw an average of 1.4 percentdecrease in hippocampus size.
Exercise is a Powerful Tool for Brain Health for Drinkers and Non-Drinkers Alike
The hippocampus region of your brain increases in size as a response to exercise, making this activity a powerful tool to fight the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus, which is considered the memory center of your brain, is the first region of your brain to suffer shrinkage and impairment at the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, leading to memory problems and disorientation.
Other contributing factors to brain disease caused by the normal aging process may also include a decrease in blood flow to your brain, and the accumulation of environmental toxins in your brain. Exercise can help ameliorate both of these conditions by increasing blood flow to your brain, thereby increasing oxygen supply to your brain and encouraging a more vigorous release and removal of accumulated toxins through better blood circulation.
If you’re a regular drinker, this becomes even more important, as alcohol is a neurotoxin that can poison your brain. Increased blood flow may also promote delivery of more of the nutrients necessary to keep your brain cells healthy in the first place.
Brain Exercises are Better than Drugs in Preventing Cognitive Decline
Exercise has been shown to be better than mentally stimulating activities like brain training exercises at protecting your brain, but mental “exercise” is still important. In fact, new research shows it works better than drugs in preventing cognitive decline. The analysis of 32 trials found that mental exercise, such as computer-based brain training programs or memory, reasoning and speed-processing exercises, protected against cognitive decline better than leading dementia drugs like donepezil. Research into brain plasticity has proven that your brain continues to make new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity, which means that cognitive function can be improved, regardless of your age, and cognitive decline can be reversed.
If you’re interested in mental exercises for your brain, Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, who has pioneered research in brain plasticity for more than 30 years, has been instrumental in the development of a kind of “brain gym” environment — a computer-based brain training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more. The program is called Brain HQ.7
“There are some very useful exercises in there that are for free, and you can actually drive improvements, for example, in brain speed, in the accuracy, with which the brain represents information in detail,” he says. “Basically, what you’re doing is reducing the chatter, the noisiness of the process of your brain. That impacts your capacity, for example, to record that information, to remember it. Because when the information is in its degraded form, when it’s fuzzy, when it’s imprecise, all of the uses of it – like your brain makes basically – are degraded.”
In the above-mentioned study, those who used computer-based training programs had significantly better memory and attention skills, improvements that were, in some cases, retained even five years later.
Another Reason for Chronic Heavy Drinkers to Take Up Exercise
There’s little doubt that exercise is one of the most important aspects of optimal health – not only for your brain but also for your entire body. That said, if you or someone you love has been affected by alcohol abuse, you know the great toll it can take on your personal relationships, work life and ability to function normally on a day-to-day basis, let alone fit in regular workouts.
The cravings for alcohol can become all-consuming and eventually an alcoholic does not feel “normal” until they’ve had a drink. The alcohol abuse inevitably throws off your circadian rhythm — the normal times you eat, sleep and wake up — as well, leading to a downward spiral of health and emotional effects. When you drink, it forces your brain to release unnaturally elevated levels of dopamine, a chemical your brain associates with rewarding behaviors. When you exercise, however, this same reward chemical is released, which means you can get the same “buzz” from working out that you can get from a six-pack of beer, with far better outcomes for your health.
This is why, if you know you’re prone to alcohol abuse or have a family history of alcohol addiction, exercising regularly can greatly reduce your risk of becoming dependent.
For those already addicted, exercise is beneficial too, and may actually help to lessen cravings. Research has found, in fact, that hamsters that ran the most consumed less alcohol, while less active hamsters had greater cravings for and consumption of alcohol.8 By replacing drinking with exercise, you may find that the rewarding feeling you get from exercise provides you with a suitable alternative to the rewarding feeling you previously got from alcohol.
What Type of Fitness Program is Best?
Ideally, to truly optimize your health, you’ll want to strive for a varied and well-rounded fitness program that incorporates a variety of exercises. As a general rule, as soon as an exercise becomes easy to complete, you need to increase the intensity and/or try another exercise to keep challenging your body. I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program:
- High-Intensity Interval (Anaerobic) Training: This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
- Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a 1-set strength training routine will ensure that you’re really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You need enough repetitions to exhaust your muscles. The weight should be heavy enough that this can be done in fewer than 12 repetitions, yet light enough to do a minimum of four repetitions. It is also important NOT to exercise the same muscle groups every day. They need at least two days of rest to recover, repair and rebuild.
- You can also “up” the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high-intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability. Exercise programs like Pilates and yoga are also great for strengthening your core muscles, as are specific exercises you can learn from a personal trainer.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretching developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching (AIS), you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body’s natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.