Scientists Link Exercise to Improved Brain Health — Especially As We Age

Regular physical activity is known to have many health benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, strengthening the bones and muscles and reducing stress. There is now evidence showing that it also has positive effects on our brains. 

Scientists have observed the relationship between movement and cognitive longevity in mice for a long time. They have recently developed evidence that it can help protect human brains from dementia and increase cognitive function.

According to Well and Good, new research issued from the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California, San Francisco, indicates that movement plays a significant role in defending our brains against cognitive decline later in life. Researchers examined donated brains of 70- to 80-year-olds to learn more about the correlation between brain functionality and exercise. They discovered that those who exercised more tended to have more protective proteins in their brains.

The Science

A healthy brain transmits electrical signals effortlessly through the synapses in our brains. Synapses are the doorways between neurons that let signals pass through and these proteins help facilitate movement and optimal functionality in our brains. These findings support the idea that our brains respond and function based on our daily activities, even in old age. In turn, the more physical activity we do, the higher our synaptic protein levels will be, no matter how old we are.

In addition to creating healthy proteins, exercise also increases the thickness of the cerebral cortex, improving the integrity of the white matter, or nerve fibers that connect areas of the brain, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It also aids the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt throughout life, helping in daily processing and function. 

The Alzheimer’s Society mentions that regular aerobic exercise over one year has been beneficial in increasing the size of the hippocampus (a key area in the brain involved in memory function), which is equivalent to reversing one to two years of age-related shrinkage. Additionally, it can also help delay the start of Alzheimer’s for people already at risk. According to the Cleveland Clinic, those who increased physical activity scored better on memory and thinking tests and experienced a 31% lower risk of dementia. Learn more about Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia in our blog post.

Get Moving

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, including brisk walking, cleaning and gardening, in addition to playing sports or running. Just 30 to 60 minutes of exercise per day promotes cardiovascular health, improves blood flow, reduces inflammation, and lowers stress hormones. It also keeps thinking, reasoning and learning skills sharp and improves memory, reasoning, and judgment skills.

One way to measure activity intensity is through heart rate and breathing, such as the talk test. If you are doing a moderate-intensity activity, you can still talk but not sing. Examples include briskly walking, water aerobics, biking slower than 10 miles per hour, tennis, ballroom dancing and gardening. You may only be able to say a few words without pausing for a breath during more vigorous activities like jogging, swimming, jumping rope or hiking.


Mental Exercise

It’s not just physical exercise that contributes to good health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, mental exercise can also help protect your brain against aging. Learning new skills or establishing new habits create more connections between brain cells and brain areas. Having more connections will help as some of them begin to fade away with age. Forbes recommends these activities to keep your mind sharp:

  • Crossword puzzlesThis activity uses verbal memory and problem-solving by seeking words with a certain number of letters that fit descriptive phrases.
  • Online brain games – These word, number, speed, math, problem-solving and shape games challenge memory, attention and concentration skills.
  • Jigsaw puzzles – These puzzles work visual-spatial working memory skills and engage multiple cognitive abilities. 
  • Tactile hobbies – Hobbies such as model building and knitting utilize procedural memory including understanding, remembering and performing a sequence of actions.
  • Card games – Games like bridge, chess and bingo require strategy and memory skills while also using point systems for gains and losses.
  • Dancing – Remembering long sequences of body movements to music is tactile, visual, motor and auditory while also working the cardiovascular system. 

Brain health can also benefit from staying socially engaged with others. Communication involves interpreting verbal and visual cues and responding accordingly. It also improves mood and potentially wards off depression, affecting cognition. Overall, the body and mind are connected, so it is essential to pay attention to all aspects of your health including physical, mental and social. 

Don’t worry if you haven’t been as physically or mentally active as you would have liked in the past. Another study by the Mayo Clinic shows that patients with dementia or mild cognitive impairment still showed better cognitive scores after just six to 12 months of exercise. The key is to move more and sit less throughout the day. In fact, each hour of light-intensity physical activity and taking 7,500 steps or more daily is associated with higher total brain volume, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Regardless of the exact minutes spent exercising, some physical activity is better than none and you will still experience various health benefits.

Local Resources in Kansas City

There are plenty of ways to focus on both physical and mental health here in Kansas City. The YMCA offers a variety of Active Older Adults programs designed to keep seniors active including arthritis programs, group classes and water fitness. Clay County also offers many different opportunities to maintain mental health and socialize through card games, lunch and senior dances. Seniors can also sign up for the SilverSneakers program that gives members access to multiple gyms and fitness locations around the metro at no cost.

Physical activity is just one component of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. With concierge medicine, you can receive the care you need on your terms with same-day appointments, minimized wait times and longer exams. KC Primary Care is among the most qualified medical providers in the Kansas City area with more than 53 years of quality training and experience. We provide annual physical exams, wellness programs, lab testing and more. We are here to help with all your healthcare needs. Call us at 816-479-5222 to schedule your visit or click here to learn more about our services.


Leave a Reply