On the surface, it would seem like physical exercise would only benefit the body, right? Wrong. It turns out that staying active also gives the brain a boost. This is especially important for seniors who tend to get more sedentary as they get older.
Recent studies show that regular physical activity and aerobic exercise improves memory and cognitive function, protects against age-related mental decline, and enhances mood and mental health.
Staying active also promotes vascular health, which helps keep brain tissue healthy. An added benefit is that it may help to form social connections, maintain or reduce weight, and improve fine motor skills.
In this article, we’ll explore how physical exercise affects the brain and cognitive function – particularly in older adults.
If you’re looking for ways to keep your mind sharp as you age, getting active is a good place to start!
What Relationship Between The Aging Brain And Exercise Did Researchers Find?
A 2021 study published in the journal, NeuroImage, has found that physical exercise can help to enhance the aging brain.
The study, conducted by a team of researchers at several U. S. universities, including some at Colorado State University, looked at how different types of physical activity affect the brain structure and function of older adults.
White matter deterioration is associated with cognitive impairment in healthy aging and Alzheimer’s disease. It is critical to identify interventions that can slow down white matter deterioration.Colmenares, et al. White matter plasticity in healthy older adults: The effects of aerobic exercise
In this new research, 247 participants (average age of 65 years) were enrolled in a 24-week controlled exercise trial. At the start of the trial, all participants were classified as low-fit and low-active.
A brain scan was performed both before and after the study. The people who participated had no neurological disorders at the start (example: Alzheimer’s disease), no history of head surgeries or trauma, and were generally healthy.
The participants were randomly divided into four groups:
- those who participated in flexibility, strength, and balance training,
- those who did a walking activity only,
- a group who did the walking activity plus added a nutritional supplement, containing anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and a beta alanine supplement.
- an aerobic dance group, with social interaction and choreographed routines.
The researchers used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of the participants before and after the 24-week intervention period.
The study results showed that both aerobic exercise (walking group) and dance training led to increased plasticity in the white matter regions of the brain.
This means the brain can remodel itself in those who physically exercise, which improves episodic memory and executive function, making it easier to think and remember. White matter shrinks over time in those who do not exercise.
All in all, the findings of this study add to a growing body of evidence showing the benefits of exercise for cognitive health in older adults.
How Else Does Exercise Benefit The Aging Brain?
Aside from increasing the plasticity of white matter, physical activity positively benefits an exercisers’ brains in other ways:
1. Physical exercise increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that promotes the growth and survival of nerve cells, helps to preserve cognitive function, and protects against age-related mental decline.
2. Exercise also promotes the release of other neurotrophic factors, including insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). These proteins help to support the health and growth of neurons.
3. Physical activity stimulates the proliferation of neural stem cells in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in learning and memory. This increases the number of new neurons that are available to be integrated into hippocampal circuits.
4. Exercise also enhances synaptic plasticity, which is the ability of neurons to form new connections with one another. This process is thought to underlie learning and memory.
5. Finally, physical activity can help to reduce inflammation in the brain. Inflammation is a process that has been linked to cognitive decline and dementia.
Why Is Exercise Important For Memory?
In getting up and moving around, a senior is more likely to harness social connections, which we already know are good for the brain.
As we mentioned above, exercise also reduces inflammation in the brain, which is linked to cognitive decline and dementia.
Exercise help seniors maintain their weight, too, which again benefits their brain.
Aerobic exercise has been shown to improve mental speed and flexibility in healthy older adults. Plus, certain exercises can draw on a senior’s fine motor skills, keeping their hand-eye coordination impressively good.
And last but not least, getting regular exercise promotes vascular health and improves blood flow to the brain. This delivers more oxygen and nutrients that the brain needs to function properly.
Regular physical activity has even been linked with a reduced risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
A 2017 article from HealthyBrains.org cites an American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry study that discovered that the size of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning) can go up even by doing light to moderate exercise.
Aerobic exercise training increases gray and white matter volume in the prefrontal cortex of older adults and increases the functioning of key nodes in the executive control network.Erickson et al, Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory
Other studies have found that exercise can help improve executive function (i.e., planning, problem-solving), attention, and processing speed.
The key is keeping it up over the long-term.
HealthyBrains.org says a mix of balance, strength training, and aerobics is ideal for a healthy senior. Balance exercises may include yoga or tai chi while cardio activities are swimming, biking, and even walking.
Along with providing better physical health, getting outside and walking or biking stimulates the mind because you are seeing new things and getting a new perspective on familiar things.
In an article from Everyday Health, Dr. Robert Bender, MD, medical director of the Johnny Orr Memory Center and Healthy Aging Institute in Des Moines, Iowa, reported that, “When the brain is passive, it has a tendency to atrophy.”
This means it is very important to avoid getting into a rut by being sedentary and sitting in front of the television. Dr. Bender noted that, “some researchers believe that people are more vulnerable to dementia when they pay less attention to the things around them.”
Can Exercise Grow New Brain Cells?
As we’ve been discussing, we know that the effects of physical activity do seem to be beneficial for the brain, but science isn’t actually sure if it can promote the growth of new brain cells.
According to MercyHealthfitness.com, in a 2021 study published in Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, researchers found that those who began working out saw subtle differences in their brains compared to those in the control group, who did not exercise.
The study, conducted by Mark Gluck and his colleagues at Rutgers University, involved 34 volunteers who completed cognitive tests and had brain scans before and after exercise.
Of the participants, 17 had been exercising regularly during the course of the study, while the others had not.
In the people who exercised, researchers noted more synchronized activity between sections of the medial temporal lobe, which corresponds to storage and retrieval of memory.
The exercisers could learn faster, retain more information, and apply it in new situation more easily. This means that the older exerciser’s brains had better cognitive function and more brain activity than the sedentary group’s brains.
Physical Exercise For Brain Power
Which physical exercises are both easy for seniors to do and good for brain power?
Joyce Gomes-Osman, PhD, PT suggests in a Harvard Health article that aerobic exercises like cycling or running are best because they are linked to “the increased capacity of the heart, lungs, and blood to transport oxygen. As a result, generalized brain effects, such as a boost in the number of blood vessels and synapses, increasing brain volume, and decreasing age-related brain atrophy, have all been reported.“
But, many seniors aren’t able to run or cycle, so what can they do? Well, there are a few low-intensity exercises that can help to boost brain health, too. These include:
- Resistance training with exercise bands for seniors
- Tai Chi
- Virtual Fitness Classes
- Meditation – guided meditation CD for beginners
- Gardening – practical guide to gardening for seniors
It’s definitely worth it to get up off the couch. According to UnityPoint Health, “By doing 30 minutes of cardio 3 times a week, your chances of memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s decreases significantly.“
*Please be sure to consult your physician before starting any exercise program. This is important.
7 Mind Stimulating Activities For Seniors
To stimulate your mind (or that of a senior loved one), try taking novel approaches to routine, day to day tasks.
- Drive to work or back home along a different route. You’ll have to think about where you are turning or going, which will make your brain more active than your usual, learned route does. Additionally, you will see new scenery, which further interests your brain.
- Try brushing your teeth or your hair with your opposite hand. You can also try eating and writing with your non dominant hand.
- Cook a different food than normal to engage your sense of smell and taste, as well as learning a new recipe. Maybe you like Indian food, but have never tackled cooking a favorite dish. Buying the spices, smelling them and identifying their scent, tasting the result – all of these give your brain something new to process.
- Say the lyrics to a song instead of singing it. Try to get as far into the song as you can by speaking the words – without resorting to humming the tune. Your brain does well with association, which is why hearing the music can help you remember the words to a song.
- Learn something new – a foreign language, take music lessons, try a new craft.
- Jigsaw puzzles studies have shown this activity can help to improve visual spatial reasoning and cognition.
- Sudoku is another activity that can help to stimulate brain function, especially if you time yourself to work towards completing a puzzle in less time.
More research is needed to determine the best exercises for the brain and how exactly exercise improves mental health. However, the current evidence suggests that physical activity does indeed have a positive effect on brain function.
It can help to improve cognitive function, protect against cognitive decline, and enhance synaptic plasticity and neurogenesis.
Therefore, it seems that incorporating some form of physical activity into your daily routine is a good way to keep your brain healthy and improve your overall cognitive and physical health.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do I forget things so quickly?
According to memory researcher, Elizabeth Loftus, there are four major reasons for why people forget things quickly. They are: failure to store the memory, interference, retrieval failure, and motivated forgetting.
How can older adults make sure they are getting enough exercise?
There are a few things that older adults can do to make sure they are getting enough exercise:
- Talk to their doctor about what type and amount of physical activity is right for them.
- Find an activity that they enjoy and can stick with long term.
- Set realistic goals, such as gradually increasing the amount of time they spend exercising each week.
- Make exercise a part of their daily routine by incorporating it into activities they already do, such as walking the dog or gardening.
- Exercise with a friend or group to stay motivated.
What are some of the most common causes of memory decline in the elderly?
There are many possible causes of memory decline in the elderly, but some of the most common include dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addressing memory decline, research has shown that physical exercise can help to improve brain function and cognition in older adults.
Exercise has a number of benefits for the brain, including increased blood flow and improved neuronal connectivity. These effects can help to delay or even prevent age-related cognitive decline.
In addition, exercise can also reduce stress levels and improve sleep quality, both of which are important for maintaining cognitive health.
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