Health Library

Categories > Exercise and Fitness > Benefits of exercise

Nimble body, nimble mind

To fight memory loss and dementia, it’s a good idea to:

  1. do a crossword puzzle
  2. take up a new hobby
  3. exercise regularly
  4. all of the above

If you answered D, you’re right. Scientists now know it takes more than mental stimulation to keep your brain sharp well into your later years. Physical activity gives your body and your brain a boost. A half-hour of moderate exercise—walking, golfing, gardening, performing household chores—on most days of the week can help you think more clearly and feel better as you age.

How exercise helps

Exercise increases blood flow to your brain, promoting brain-cell growth, and helps reduce stress—important since chronic stress causes the release of hormones that can damage your brain over time. Some studies suggest exercise increases levels of important chemicals that maintain brain health. Other studies on mice show that exercise appears to delay or prevent plaque development in brain regions used in memory, thinking and decision making.

Regular exercise also helps preserve healthy brain functioning by:

  • Reducing your risk for heart disease. Exercise lowers homocysteine, an amino acid in your blood that makes nerve cells in the brain stop working and die.
  • Controlling your blood sugar. Diabetes is linked with several types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia (common to stroke survivors). Both aerobic and weight-bearing exercises control your blood sugar by increasing your metabolism.
  • Lowering your blood pressure. Unchecked, high blood pressure can damage blood vessels in your brain and reduce its oxygen supply, leading to a decline in decision making, memory and verbal skills.
  • Controlling your body weight and improving physical fitness. Studies show a link between dementia and being overweight, possibly because overweight individuals have more cardiovascular risk factors associated with dementia than people at a healthy weight. Plus, researchers have found that older adults who started a walking regimen had an easier time planning, scheduling and making decisions as they became more physically fit.

Diversity is key

For the most brain benefits, change your exercise routine often. It’s not how hard you exercise but how many activities you participate in that’s key to preventing cognitive decline. Johns Hopkins University found that adults ages 65 and older who were involved in a number of activities (such as walking, biking, swimming, dancing and bowling) experienced less dementia than people who participated in fewer activities. One explanation for this could be that the variety of activities keeps more parts of the brain active. So, don’t worry about how much you’re sweating or how vigorously you’re moving—just enjoy a variety of activities every day and keep exploring to find new ones.