Exercise does wonders for your health. It reduces the risk of premature death and prevents many diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and even cancer. But did you know that being physically active could boost your brain abilities too? Although there are competing views on this matter, the great majority of scientists agree that physical activity has a positive effect on cognitive function.

Being physically active, from performing household chores to working out at the gym, might positively influence cognitive processes such as perception, memory, learning, attention, and decision making. 

Proper cognition is essential for everyday functioning. It allows us to process information and to respond appropriately, guiding our behavior and communication with others. However, our cognitive function tends to decline with age. But here’s the good news: exercise, especially if aerobic, could protect you from the negative impacts of aging.

No matter your age, exercise can have positive effects on your memory and mood.

 A study that measured the total daily activity of older individuals revealed that those who had a more active lifestyle had better cognitive function, despite the presence of brain pathologies, such as Alzheimer’s disease. However, the authors could not rule out the possibility that the preserved cognitive capabilities resulted from the physical activity that these individuals performed throughout their lives rather than in their late years. Still, starting an exercise practice later in life has been shown to have positive effects on delaying brain aging and improving memory. Older adults who performed aerobic exercise for a single year revealed an increase in the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain responsible for learning and memory that tends to shrink with age. But you should not postpone being active to maintain your brain health. In fact, physical activity has been shown to attenuate the age-related loss of hippocampal volume in people as young as 24 years old. Besides the hippocampus, other brain regions involved in memory and thinking have been shown to be preserved in response to exercise. 

Exercise can cause anatomic, cellular, and molecular changes in the brain, which altogether improve learning, attention, and memory. Physical activity regulates the availability of sugar and brain oxygen, reduces inflammation, and stimulates the release of chemical substances that influence the communication between brain cells. These substances include messengers, that transmit information between brain cells, or growth factors, that enhance the creation and rearrangement of nerve cell connections in brain regions relevant to cognition. Also, exercise improves mood and sleep, which can indirectly affect cognitive function.

The fact that something as simple as exercise can improve brain structure and function is very promising, particularly because there are no effective treatments for Alzheimer’s and for other common neurodegenerative diseases that affect cognition.

Exercise could help prevent, or at least delay, symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most frequent type of dementia in the elderly. This disease is characterized by a progressive decline of cognitive functions, which translates into memory loss and eventually into the inability of having normal conversations or performing everyday tasks. About 50 million people have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, worldwide. Impressively, about one-third of these cases could be delayed with lifestyle changes, including the practice of exercise. Specifically, regular physical activity could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 45%

Besides its role in prevention, aerobic exercise could also improve brain function in those who have an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, especially in the earlier stages of the disease. However, combining diet changes and cognitive training with exercise might be more successful than relying solely on physical activity to prevent or delay cognitive decline.

As more studies are performed, exercise interventions might start being prescribed to enhance cognitive performance in our aging population. But first, researchers need to further explore how the type, frequency, duration, and intensity of exercise impact cognition. 

Although more research is needed to clarify some of these questions, the take home message is that you should exercise to keep your brain fit. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends “that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity (…) each week”. But, regarding cognition, you are not limited to cardiovascular exercise. In fact, resistance training and mind-body exercise, including yoga, pilates, tai chi, and dance, also seem to have a positive effect on cognitive function. If you do not know what type of exercise to choose, know that combining aerobic and resistance training might be more effective in inducing cognitive improvement than restricting to a single type of exercise.

Check out these tips and challenges to get moving. Take a step toward improving your brain health today!