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Exercise Improves Brain Fitness as You Age

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Key Takeaways

  • Maintaining an exercise routine as you get older may be protective when it comes to brain health, a recent study suggests.
  • One aspect that helps with brain function seems to be control over your exercise choices, which can help keep you consistent and motivated.
  • Exercise helps the brain in a number of ways, including improved blood flow.

In addition to offering a breadth of physical benefits during aging, exercise also can protect against mild cognitive impairment as well, according to recent research in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging.

About the Study

Researchers recruited 105 men and women aged 70 to 77 and split them into three groups. The first performed supervised exercise twice a week with high-intensity interval training (HIIT) at a 90% peak heart rate. The second did moderate-intensity training at 70% peak heart rate. The third, a control group, did at least 30 minutes of daily activity, but at a low intensity and didn’t have heart rate measured.

Brain volume and cortical thickness—a measure of gray matter associated with cognition—as well as cardiorespiratory function were measured after one year, three years, and five years of exercise.

Asta Haberg, PhD

We speculate that more time spent being physically active performing an activity chosen by the individual is key to better brain health.

— Asta Haberg, PhD

Cardiorespiratory fitness increased significantly for all three groups during the first year. In terms of brain changes, those who came into the study with higher fitness levels saw less brain tissue loss over the years, but even those who were newer to exercise gained some degree of improved working memory, according to study co-author Asta Haberg, PhD, professor in the department of neuromedicine and movement science at Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

There was one major aspect of improvement that wasn’t related to heart rate or cortical thickness, Dr. Haberg adds—it was whether the participants felt control over their choices. For example, those who were able to choose their activity, where they exercised, and whether they exercised alone or with a training buddy tended to have more beneficial outcomes.

“Based on this, we speculate that more time spent being physically active performing an activity chosen by the individual is key to better brain health,” says Haberg. “Also, diligently following physical activity guidelines provides a significant cardiorespiratory effect in healthy older adults.”

That type of control also can be part of maintaining a regular fitness routine, previous research suggests, because it can lead to greater enjoyment with exercise. For example, one study notes that about 50% of participants in exercise programs drop out in the first 6 months, but that those who feel positive emotions tend to have significantly higher levels of program adherence.

Why Exercise Helps the Brain

There are a number of reasons that exercise has an effect on the brain, according to Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD, neurologist and neuroscientist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD

Being sedentary increases your risk of cognitive issues because you’re not getting optimal circulation to the parts of the brain related to functions like memory.

— Santosh Kesari, MD, PhD

“Aerobic exercise helps with vascular integrity, which means that it improves blood flow and function, and that includes the brain,” Dr. Kesari notes. “That’s one of the reasons that being sedentary increases your risk of cognitive issues because you’re not getting optimal circulation to the parts of the brain related to functions like memory.”

He adds that exercise also can stimulate the growth of new connections in the brain, as well as reduce inflammation throughout the body. Both play a role in helping lower age-related brain health risks.

A study in Preventive Medicine found that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive, compared to those who get some form of physical activity. The connection is so strong that researchers recommended the encouragement of physical activity as a public health measure for reducing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Getting Active

Although there is ample research noting that endurance training and strength training are beneficial for older adults, those who are just starting to exercise may feel less overwhelmed by recognizing that all movement is helpful.

For example, in its information about older adults and brain health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests activities such as dancing, walking, light yard work, gardening, and using the stairs instead of the elevator.

It also recommends doing quick activities like squats or marching in place while watching TV. To keep increasing exercise and finding new ways to challenge yourself every week, the CDC recommends keeping a simple diary of daily activities.

What This Means For You

As you age, maintaining a regular fitness routine can be an important way to protect brain health, a recent study suggests. This new study adds to the wealth of research that suggests the exercise-brain connection is a strong one. Plus, it is never too late to start exercising. Just be sure to talk to a healthcare provider before beginning an exercise program.


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