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How Does Physical Activity Promote Brain Health?

By: Dr. Rob Winningham, PhD

There are many well-documented reasons to get more physical activity, including reducing the chance of stroke, heart disease, or diabetes. Physical activity can also help mitigate depression, mood disorders and improve sleep. However, physical exercise has also been linked to improved cognitive abilities, including the ability to stay focused and make new memories.

What types of physical activity work?

Just about every kind of physical exercise has been shown to be beneficial for cognitive ability. Most research on this topic finds that physical exercise improves executive functioning. Executive functioning includes our ability to pay attention, concentrate, inhibit paying attention to distractions, problem solve and reason. Executive functioning abilities predict our ability to make new memories, safely drive a vehicle, avoid falls and live independently. Dozens of scientific studies have shown that both aerobic exercise and strength training have independent benefits to our executive functioning.

We have also seen that yoga and tai chi have the ability to improve cognition. Based on research findings, yoga (even chair yoga) is a particularly exciting form of exercise. Yoga is thought to lead to improved executive functioning because it can have both an aerobic and strength-training component. But, yoga can also have a cognitive exercise component if people are focused on their breathing (e.g., breathing in with certain movements and breathing out with other movements). Finally, yoga (and other types of physical exercise) can lead to reductions in stress levels, which can indirectly affect cognitive abilities.

How much physical activity is necessary?

In general, the research suggests that middle-aged and older adults who increase their overall level of moderate-intensity exercise will see improvements in cognition. Standard recommendations are that we should get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity most days of the week. We know that generally the more physical exercise people do the better the effects are on mental and cognitive health.

Can anyone benefit from more physical exercise?

Certainly, most people can benefit from increasing their amount, and intensity, of physical exercise. But, when we look at cognitive abilities, research has shown that older adults benefit the most from exercise.

How can people be motivated to get more physical activity?

There are several ways to help anyone increase their physical exercise and stick with it. Making a plan to exercise with a friend or loved one can hold people more accountable. Then, sticking with that plan begins to make exercise a habit. However, it is also important to be mindful of the benefits of physical exercise that are most important to them (e.g., greater strength, more endurance, etc.). Here are some other ways to increase overall level of physical activity…

  1. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  2. When at an airport, walk instead of using the moving walkways.
  3. Try to take a 30-minute walk daily.
  4. Plant a garden.
  5. Walk or ride a bicycle to run errands, if possible.
  6. Join a gym.
  7. If you already have a gym membership, schedule some time with a personal trainer to change your workout.
  8. Swim.
  9. Ask a friend or spouse to exercise with you.
  10. Listen to audiobooks or podcasts when you exercise so that your workout goes quicker (10% more calories are burned because people tend to exercise longer with music or entertainment).
  11. Wear a fitness tracker to count your daily steps and set goals.
  12. Walk your dog. If you don’t have a dog, ask whether you can walk a neighbor’s dog.