As we age, one of the things we worry about is keeping our mind sharp. For you, that may look like a sudoku puzzle over coffee or enjoying the morning sun with a crossword puzzle. While these things are good for stretching those brain muscles, physical activity is shown to improve executive function, memory, and working memory.
The connection between exercise and health is not hard to make, but it is less clear how physical activity can help the brain. The positive effects of exercise may be due to an increase in the blood vessels and neurons in the brain. Our body adapts to the stresses put on it, and when we exercise, capacity and connections increase to meet the oxygen and learning demands. Exercise can also help reduce systemic inflammation which can reduce cell damage that accompanies aging. Other brain benefits may be due to improved sleep and reduced stress hormones.
Do not despair if you have not been a life-long athlete. Brain changes happen no matter what age you begin to exercise, so the time to begin is now! The 2018 comprehensive review by Northey and colleagues, “Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysis,” also finds physical activity also has cognitive advantages for people with normal cognitive function or those with impairments. It is never too early to improve brain health with exercise, but it is never too late, either!
Aerobic exercise, resistance exercise, and especially the combination of both are effective at improving cognitive function, as shown by this study. Tai chi is also beneficial. Improvements are seen with 45 minutes of moderate intensity exercise on most days of the week. Because we all start at different fitness levels, the talk test is a good way to determine moderate for you — you should be able to talk but not sing during moderate exercise.
This lines up very nicely with the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations for physical activity for adults (including older adults), which are 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity and 2 days of resistance training. Exercise is vital to physical and mental health, and should be the first step in healthy aging.
There is no pill or puzzle that will keep you thinking and moving like physical activity. So add a brisk walk to your morning routine or try out tai chi. Find something to get you moving — your brain will thank you!
Tiffany Salido is a doctor of physical therapy and owner of The Movement Joint, a wellness studio offering safe, PT-led exercise classes individualized for people with joint and muscle pain, weakness, balance problems, fatigue, and mobility difficulties, or who want personalized guidance to begin their fitness journey. Find out more at themovementjoint.com or call (828) 680-0422.