When it comes to having optimal heart health, we are often advised to get in at least 2.5 hours of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity per week. What most of us may not know is that in doing so, we are also boosting our brain functions along with our physical fitness.
Studies have shown that activities that we do to benefit our heart can also benefit our brain, as cognitive decline has the same risk factors that cause heart disease and strokes - namely: obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes1. These conditions not only clog our heart’s arteries, but also the arteries of the rest of the body, including the brain. With the occurrence of arterial blockages, blood flow and oxygen delivery to our organs are compromised, resulting in further health problems.
How poor heart health affects the brain
In 2020, a study found that people with poor cardiovascular health were more susceptible to cognitive decline. Specific signs of cognitive decline include a slowdown in brain processing speed and poorer memory2. The link between heart health and brain health seems undeniable.
There are a few cardiovascular risk factors that specifically affect our various aspects of our brain health. These are the main factors that researchers have identified, and their link to our brain health3:
- High blood pressure and diabetes leads to a reduction in brain matter and eventually brain shrinkage
- High cholesterol increases bad protein buildup in the brain, eventually destroying brain cells
- Decreased blood flow due to clogged arteries slows brain processing speed
Thus, improving our heart health is key to improving brain health as well, due to the close links cardiovascular risk factors have with the brain. Having a healthy heart and good blood flow also will help clear protein accumulation in our bloodstreams and reduce the risk of arterial blockages and prevent brain deterioration in the long-run.
The importance of physical activity
With the intertwined nature of our heart and brain health in mind, the importance of physical activity in improving our long-term well-being is indisputable. Getting in regular exercise is often likened by experts as killing two birds with one stone as it provides the following benefits:
- Promotes cardiovascular health, which reduces the risk factors of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes that affect brain health
- Improves blood flow, which in turn increases brain processing speed
- Reduces inflammation, which increases communication between neurons, allowing the brain to work better
- Reduces stress hormone levels, like cortisol, which when unregulated, kills brain cells and can even reduce the size of the brain
- Affects brain growth, such as increasing the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning4
While being physically active isn’t the entire solution to having better brain health, it certainly is an easy and simple way to get started, and can even have unquestionable benefits in the workplace. A 2019 study found that participants who were more physically active scored higher on memory and thinking tests, and were 31% less likely to experience cognitive decline5. With clear advantages of improved work performance and individual well-being, promoting physical activity in the workplace is definitely something worth focusing on.
Promoting physical activity in the workplace
In general, any form of physical activity can be beneficial in improving our heart health, and by extension, our brain health as well. However, as mentioned earlier, experts typically recommend at least 150 minutes of medium-intensive exercises a week.
While 150 minutes a week might not seem like too difficult to achieve, employees may still find it hard to make time for physical activity due to the various commitments that they have in their lives. As employers, we can play a more active role in encouraging our employees to adopt a healthier and more active lifestyle that starts in the workplace, where they already spend the majority of their time.
For a start, employers can initiate workplace fitness programmes conducted by external trainers. To keep things interesting and fresh, these programmes can also be constantly varied by having a diverse selection of exercises. Consider cycling through various kickboxing, yoga, pilates and zumba sessions to appeal to a wider group of people. During telecommuting periods, alternative approaches such as organising virtual workouts, creating company-wide workout challenges, as well as sharing workout plans and useful apps can be employed to keep in line with social distancing measures. Employers could also encourage or incentivise their employees to join these programs as it not only keeps them active, but also serves as a way for them to bond with their coworkers.
Employers can also allow more flexibility in their employees’ work schedules, by allowing them some time to hit the gym before work or during an extended lunch hour if they wish to do so. Alternatively, for smaller companies who do not have a gym on the premises, there are other simple actions that employers could take to encourage physical activity. Simple changes like installing a pull-up bar, having a small exercise area with exercise balls and mats, or even offering standing desks as an option can help immensely in helping employees stay active throughout the workday.
Over to you
Ultimately, staying physically active is a win-win situation, as it allows us to simultaneously keep both our heart and brain healthy. As employers, we can play an active role in maintaining both the heart and brain health of our employees, by taking steps to encourage physical activity in and around the office. In doing so, we can ensure that we will stay physically, mentally and cognitively healthy, which in turn boosts productivity and improves their overall work-life balance.
1. Tello, M. (2019). Brain health rests on heart health: Guidelines for lifestyle changes. Harvard Health Blog.
2. Song, R., Xu, H., Dintica, C., Pan, K., Qi, X., & Buchman, A. et al. (2020). Associations Between Cardiovascular Risk, Structural Brain Changes, and Cognitive Decline. Journal Of The American College Of Cardiology.
3. LaMotte, S. (2020). Age-proof your brain by keeping your heart healthy, study says. CNN.
3. Harvard Health. (2014). Improving heart health is also good for your brain.
5. Mortimer, J., & Stern, Y. (2019). Physical exercise and activity may be important in reducing dementia risk at any age. Neurology.