Aerobic Exercise & Long Term Brain Health

Aerobic Exercise & Long Term Brain Health

May 06, 2021

Written by Lori Jo Vest

Fact checked by The Brain Blog Team

There’s a link between aerobic exercise and brain health, according to new research.

The first study connecting long-term brain health with exercise began over a century ago. Even today, we continue to learn from scientific research and find better ways of living.    

 Scientists have discovered that cognitive decline doesn't have to be a necessary part of growing older. Studies in the US and around the world show we can even become more intelligent as we age. And certain kinds of physical activity can increase our ability to think and remember.

What does modern-day research tell us about aerobic exercise and how it correlates with brain health?

A recent study with Duke University Medical Center profiled 160 people age 55 and older over six months. Participants were drawn from TV and newspaper ads, doctors, and mailing lists from Duke Aging Center and Duke Alzheimer's Disease Research Center. 

At the beginning of the study, none of the participants exercised regularly, and they all had some measurable cognitive impairment. Results showed that those who practiced regular aerobic exercise improved their neurocognitive and executive function test scores during the test period.

What is executive function?

We all want our brains to operate efficiently and smoothly to maintain optimal brain health. Executive function describes the brain processes that make it possible to set goals, make decisions, and store information. When this system is working well, you're able to organize, make healthy decisions, and plan for the future. This part of the brain is physically located directly behind the forehead and is known as the frontal lobes. It is the last part of our brain to develop in young adulthood and makes up roughly 40% of the entire brain. Dementia causes a decline in the brain's executive function, resulting in a variety of challenges.

What can we do to prevent the loss of our brain health?

A decline in mental capacity can affect the ability to plan, multitask, remember information and learn from the past. We've known since The New England Journal of Medicine published research in 1887 that exercise promotes brain growth. Today we know physical exercise can prevent loss and decline in the brain and even improve brain performance. People in the study at Duke went from no physical exercise to aerobic activity three times per week for 45 minutes at a time. Aerobic exercise demonstrably increased their brainpower.

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What qualifies as aerobic exercise?

Moderate-intensity exercise, also known as aerobic exercise, proved to be most beneficial for brain health. Aerobic activity is the kind of movement that gets your heart pumping, your lungs working harder, and your sweat glands activated. Other types of exercise do not affect the brain in the same way. If you’re having difficulty fitting aerobic exercise into your day, know that you break a sweat and get a bit winded without becoming drenched and needing a shower. Take that walk at lunch or before dinner, if that’s when you can squeeze in a half-hour.

What are some ways to start?

If you can walk briskly for an errand instead of driving, that would be a great way to start aerobic exercise as a regular practice. Find a friend to walk with to help you stay accountable for regular exercise. The increased sense of connection is an added boost for your brain health. You don't need to leave home to get aerobic exercise. Try doing intense house cleaning, yard work, gardening, or even dancing in your living room.    

 Bicycling, jogging, and swimming are also great ways to get moving. Multiple studies continue to show exercise can lower the risk for cognitive decline, and we can truly become wiser as we age.

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