Research Shows that Regular Physical Activity Improves Brain Function Throughout Our Lives

We know that exercise and physical health have a direct impact on cognitive functioning. For example, by late middle age, most people have developed age-related lesions in the brain’s white matter. For most people, the lesions go completely undetected, causing few to no symptoms. For others, the lesions can widen and multiply, affecting their ability to think clearly. However, research shows that resistance training can stop, or even reverse, cognitive declines.

Likewise, cognitive health (the ability to clearly think, learn, and remember)  has a direct impact on physical health and is a key component of whole-person wellness. Like every aspect of the Dimensions of Wellness, the relationship between cognitive and physical health is cyclical. As we age, cognitive declines contribute to a higher risk of accidents and falls. Accidents and falls can prevent us from engaging in activities that enrich our life and support cognitive health, causing further decline.

Physical health is important in its own right. But it is also foundational for our emotional, social, environmental, spiritual, and intellectual health. One of the best things we can do to support active aging is to care for our brains. And one of the best ways to care for our brains is to care for our bodies.

Over the past few decades, study after study indicates that physical activity has an impact on cognitive function beginning in infancy and continuing through every stage of our life. But, two recent studies demonstrate that exercise done today might support cognitive functioning for years to come, regardless of your age.

Exercise now, reap the benefits for years.

One study from researchers at the University of Minnesota titled, “Cardio respiratory Fitness and Cognitive Function in Middle Age: The CARDIA Study”, found that regular aerobic exercise in young adults, aged 18 to 30, had a direct impact on thinking and memory skills in middle age.

The study consisted of 2,747 healthy people with an average age of 25. Participants completed a treadmill test in 1985 or 1986 and then again twenty years later. They also completed a series of cognitive tests that measured verbal memory, psychomotor speed (the relationship between thinking skills and physical movement), and executive functioning.

Participants who performed the treadmill test with a similar score in middle age as when in their mid 20’s were significantly more likely to perform better on the executive function test than those who’s treadmill tests showed a large decrease in physical fitness. Across the board, researchers found better verbal memory, faster psychomotor speeds, and improved executive function at 43 to 55 years of age to be clearly associated with better cardio respiratory fitness from 25 years earlier.

Another study published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia from the University of Eastern Finland found that physical activity in middle age might protect people from dementia in older age. In the study, researchers found that participants who engaged in moderate to challenging physical activity at least twice a week had a lower risk of dementia than those who were less active.

Perhaps most importantly, becoming more physically active after midlife was also shown to lower the risk of dementia, demonstrating that it’s never too late to start.

Researchers in both studies emphasized that remaining physically active through midlife, or becoming physically active during midlife and remaining so for as long as possible has a tremendous impact on cognitive health. In other words – physical exercise can help extend high cognitive functioning through midlife to old age.

Why does exercise have such an impact on cognitive health and active aging?

While we don’t yet understand all the reasons behind the impact exercise has on cognitive health and active aging, one reason might simply have to do with increased oxygen. The brain requires a constant supply of oxygen to maintain normal cognitive function. Physical activity not only increases the amount of oxygen in our blood, it helps our bodies circulate the oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. This is true even for moderate physical activities, including housework or gardening.

Exercise also boosts our body’s ability to create mitochondria – the cellular structures that generate and maintain our energy – in both our muscles and our brain. This might be the reason many people report feeling greater mental clarity after exercise.

In The Athlete’s Way, author Christopher Bergland argues that exercise is as much about the mind as it is about the body, making people healthier, happier, smarter, and more well-adjusted. He stresses that neuroscientists have known for decades that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is released during aerobic exercise and stimulates neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons).

Scientists have also recently discovered a hormone called Irisin which is released after moderate endurance aerobic activity and seems to increase our ability to maintain healthy body weight, improve cognition, and may even slow the aging process. Sometimes called the “exercise hormone”, irisin promotes a wide range of health benefits, including stimulating the growth of neurons in the brain.

How much exercise do we need to reap the cognitive benefits?

A new study published in Neurology: Clinical Practice set out to answer the question of how much exercise is optimal to support brain health. Based on data that included more than 11,000 older people, they found that people who exercised about 52 hours over a period of about six months showed the biggest improvements in cognitive tests. Interestingly, the effect showed up in people with and without cognitive decline, as well as those with mild cognitive impairment or dementia.

Researchers emphasized that “52 hours” is not a magic number. Rather, it’s a ballpark indicator of the level of exercise necessary to stimulate cognitive growth in the brain.

What’s most interesting from this study is that the only strong correlation they found between exercise and brain function is in the overall time subjects spent being physically active. They did not find a significant correlation between improved cognition and the frequency, intensity, or length of time people exercised. This supports the idea that when it comes to active aging and cognitive health it’s the cumulative effect of exercise that’s most important. In other words, get active and stay active.

Physical health is foundational to whole-person health.

The HUR 6 Dimensions of Wellness is a model for healthy aging based on an integrated, whole-person approach to living longer, healthier lives. The model offers a clear path towards healthy, active aging because it recognizes that building and maintaining physical health is not an end unto itself. In fact, for most seniors, the reasons for pursuing physical health have more to do with their emotional, social, intellectual, environmental, and spiritual needs than a strict desire for physical health.

As the research shows, physical and cognitive health are intrinsically linked. As we increase muscle strength, we also increase cognitive strength. This is true even for those experiencing cognitive deficits. For that reason, HUR equipment is designed to provide an effective full-body workout that connects mind and body and is safe and easy to use for people with a wide range of cognitive abilities.

HUR SmartTouch delivers immediate, real-time feedback, allowing users to experience cognitive benefits right away — even those experiencing cognitive declines. The easy-to-read user display leads each user through their pre-programmed routine, counting reps, tracking individual progress, and empowering adults of all ages and ability levels to take charge of their health.