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Exercise May Boost Your Brain Health Later in Life, Study Finds

Of the many benefits of exercise, its potential effects on brain health may be one of the most important as you age.

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Any certified trainer or health professional you ask will tell you that exercise has plenty of total-body benefits, and most of those perks have nothing to do with how your body looks. As you age, it becomes even more important to stay as active as you can to protect your body and mind. A new study from the University of Georgia suggests that physical activity might help maintain brain health as the years go by. 

“We’ve always been told it’s good to exercise, but I think this is some evidence that exercise can actually change your brain,” Marissa Gogniat, PhD, lead study author and postdoctoral fellow in neuropsychology at the Vanderbilt Memory and Alzheimer’s Center, said in a press release. “And that impacts the way you’re able to function in your daily life.”

The study, which was published in Sport Sciences for Health, followed 51 older adults who all wore devices to measure steps taken, distance covered and physical activity throughout the day. Their fitness levels were measured by the distance they could cover in a six-minute walking test. They were also put through tests designed to measure their cognitive functioning and underwent MRI scans to study their brain functioning. 

To gauge each participant’s brain function, researchers analyzed the way different networks in the brain communicated with one another. These networks send information constantly, but different parts are active at different times depending on what you’re doing at the moment. This means the network that’s active while you rest should be off when you’re focusing on a task, for example. 

When these networks don’t work properly and fail to activate or shut off when they’re supposed to, things like memory or self-control are affected. As we all know, these things tend to happen as you age.

The study found that people who took more steps and had better six-minute walk test scores also had improved cognitive function, which suggests that fitness might protect our brains as we age.

“This paper is exciting because it gives us some evidence that when people whose brain networks aren’t functioning optimally engage in physical activity, we see improvement in their executive function and their independence,” Gogniat said. “We’re not saying you need to radically change your life… Maybe just take the stairs on the way to work. Stand up and walk around a little bit more. That’s where you get the most bang for your buck, not crazy, high-intensity exercise.”

Now, we’re willing to bet you already do that and then some. But this study suggests that staying active as you age could do you good, so remember that as time goes on. And if you have any couch potato friends or family who could use a bit of encouragement, let them know! 

“This finding isn’t saying, ‘If you’re older, you need to go out there and start running marathons,’” Gogniat said. “This is saying if you get more steps, if you’re moving around your environment a little bit more, that can be helpful to your brain health and keep you more independent as you age.”

For more about exercise’s impact on brain health, continue reading here: