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Exercise & Your Brain: Are Couch Potatoes at Greater Risk for Cognitive Deterioration?

When was the last time you exercised?

The Effect of Fitness on the Brain

There is well documented research that physical exercise has protective effects against metabolic and cardiovascular disease.

Recently, the effects of exercise and the benefits to healthy brain aging has received more attention as well. The exact mechanisms for how and under what circumstances exercise helps promote a healthy brain and prevent changes in cognition (ex: memory and thinking skills) is still not fully understood. However, research has demonstrated that higher levels of physical activity over the lifetime is associated with better cognitive functioning later in life.

Sedentary Behavior & Brain Health

Just as the rest of the body ages, so does the brain, which often shrinks as we age – and at times – has slower communication between brain cells. Studies have looked at the association between exercise and brain size and has shown that…

…older adults who engage in regular physical activity have larger brains than those who engage in little to no physical activity.

However, this research must be looked at in a cautious manner. The research is not saying that lack of physical activity causes the brain to shrink. Rather, there is a relationship between lack of exercise and accelerated brain aging.

One study, in particular, has shown that regular exercise is associated with greater volume in the hippocampus – the part of the brain related to short term memory skills.

Senior man in-line skating in a surfing pose

The Positive Impact of Fitness on the Brain

A landmark ten-year study by the MacArthur Foundation showed that 70 percent of physical aging and approximately 50 percent of mental aging is determined by lifestyle choices we make every day.

We all experience some change in cognition as we get older. Healthy cognitive aging, however, is often defined as having some change in memory or thinking abilities but to such a minor degree that it is not bothersome or significantly disruptive to our daily lives.

The goal of healthy cognitive aging is to make lifestyle choices that minimize the effects of aging on our brain.

Minimizing Cognitive Change as We Age

Physical activity is often considered a protective factor against dementia along with staying mentally active and socially engaged. Studies and clinical programs have focused on identifying mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor stage to developing dementia, and how lifestyle management is the key to minimize progression of difficulties and avoid dementia.

While the research is still ongoing, in general, recommendations to older adults to minimize cognitive changes as we age include:

  • Get regular, physical exercise.
  • Stay mentally active.
  • Focus on socially engaging with others.
  • Maintain a heart healthy diet.



Ways to Improve Your Brain Health

You can improve the health of your brain, starting today! The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that just 30 minutes a day of exercise (even in 10-minute bouts) has the same health benefits as more strenuous activity.

The National Institute of Aging recommends incorporating four types of exercise into your routine, including:

  • Endurance  – walking and aerobic activities
  • Strength Training – free weights and resistance weights
  • Flexibility – stretching or yoga
  • Balance Exercise – yoga, tai chi, standing on one foot, etc.

Stay mentally active.

Staying mentally active involves finding activities that challenge your thinking, such as learning a new skill or finding a new hobby. There is no evidence that formal “cognitive training” programs have any greater benefit than making sure you engage in some mentally challenging task each day.

Stay socially engaged.

Social engagement is as simple as making sure to see friends and family on a regular basis. Stay active in church or community groups, or volunteer, etc.

Eat healthy.

Healthy brain aging starts with a healthy diet. Eat a heart healthy diet with lots of fruits and vegetables; and remember to drink plenty of water every day.

About Laurie R. Leach, PhD, ABN

Dr. Leach joined WakeMed Neuropsychology in 1995. She is board certified by the American Board of Professional Neuropsychology and a Fellow of the American College of Professional Neuropsychology. Dr. Leach also serves as Program Director of WakeMed’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation System (BIRS). She specializes in adult neuropsychology, with special interests in acquired brain injury, cerebrovascular accident, and dementia.