You know the wide-ranging benefits of exercise. Physical fitness is important for weight loss, bone strength, heart health and more. Now there’s research to suggest that staying physically fit can help keep your mind sharp as well and it doesn’t matter when you begin.
Research has demonstrated that just three hours of light exercise weekly can lead to improvements in executive function, a type of cognition that refers to the ability to plan, multitask, self-regulate, and manage complex tasks, within just six months. Better still – those three hours do not need to be at a high level of intensity. Type of aerobic exercise is less important than simply raising your heart rate and getting your blood pumping.
Other studies have shown that periods of consistent physical activity early in life can pay off even decades later. A recent study compared the brain of champion track and field athlete, Olga Kotelko, who competed into her 90s, to various other research participants of older age. The structure of Kotelko’s brain was often markedly different than many of the study participants. Connectivity of Kotelko’s hemispheres was more robust than some of the 60-year-old participants in the study. While this study is not able to establish causation between particular behaviors and cognitive ability, it does provide a basis for further scientific inquiry and hint at a broader relationship between brain health and exercise.
Scientists have found that consistent physical activity can change the brain’s structure and function. Aerobic exercise expands the volume of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, and can alter connections between the brain’s various networks that support memory and decision-making. These shifts in the brain’s properties can have important cognitive benefits. Exercise leads to molecular and cellular changes that support improvements in cognition. Regular exercise has been shown to improve executive functioning, as well as harder-to-define aspects of functioning, like dealing with ambiguity.
The current research is great news for older adults. The growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of exercise and physical health on cognition demonstrates that brain health can improve with age. Getting just those three hours of light to moderate aerobic exercise weekly can have largely beneficial effects on memory, attention, and decision making. So, it just goes to show you, it’s never too late to get in shape – your brain health depends on it!