We know exercise is great for the body because it conditions the heart and strengthens muscles and bones. Exercise is also tied to mental health, as moving the body benefits the mind by releasing endorphins, feel-good chemicals that can reduce depression and anxiety. So, there’s not a lot exercise can’t do. But here’s one more reason to work out: New research shows exercise can protect your memory as you age, slowing the onset of dementia and boosting your thinking skills.
A recent study from UT Southwestern Medical Center published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease looked at the link between exercise and cognitive function in older adults. Over a 1-year period, the researchers worked with 70 participants showing mild cognitive impairment, enrolling them in two groups. One group performed 30–40 minutes of aerobic exercise 3–5 times per week, while the control group underwent a stretching routine for the same duration. After 12 months, the men and women who exercised showed better cardiovascular fitness, which is no surprise. But they also displayed better memory function and cerebral blood flow.
“This is part of a growing body of evidence linking exercise with brain health,” says study leader Rong Zhang, PhD, professor of neurology at UTSW, in a statement. “We’ve shown for the first time in a randomized trial in these older adults that exercise gets more blood flowing to your brain.”
Prior studies have noted below-average blood flow to the brain is linked with memory decline and dementia. Studies have also looked at exercise related to brain health, but it’s been difficult to establish exactly how exercise impacts brain function and memory. Blood flow may be the answer.
Fortunately, you don’t need to jump into a spin class or start a HIIT program to enjoy the brain benefits of aerobic exercise. A Duke University Medical Center study found walking is all it takes to increase blood flow to the brain. Researchers followed 160 older adults at risk for cognitive decline over a six-month period. Those who walked for at least 30 minutes three times per week showed improved executive functioning.
And, according to a Harvard Medical School report, the powers of brain-boosting exercise extend beyond just blood flow. Exercise can also enhance memory indirectly because, when you exercise, you tend to sleep better, improve your mood and reduce stress and anxiety — all issues known to cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.
THE BOTTOM LINE
While everyone is different, every body and brain can benefit from exercise. Aerobic exercise gets your blood pumping, which benefits your heart, lungs, limbs and brain.
Zhang notes that physiological findings like those uncovered in the UT Southwestern study can also be useful for physicians when they talk to their patients about the benefits of exercise. “We now know, based on a randomized, controlled trial, that exercise can increase blood flow to the brain, which is a good thing.”
But be patient. While exercise can quickly boost short-term memory, researchers note it may take up to six months to fully realize the cognitive benefits of exercise. For the best results, try to make it a daily habit.
For more fitness inspiration, check out “Workout Routines” in the app to discover and log a wide variety of routines by performance specialists. Or build your own routine with exercises that fit your goals.