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Physical Activity

How exercising can protect your brain

Physical activity is crucial to brain health. it is proven, even a short amount can have a huge impact. Let's see how and why make exercise a regular feature in your lives.
October 31, 2022

How often do you exercise? It’s something that we all know we should be doing, but for many of us, life can sometimes get in the way - whether it’s family and work commitments, a lack of motivation, or simply not enough time. However, with physical activity so crucial to brain health, it’s important to prioritise it and make exercise a regular feature in our lives. Still need convincing? Read on…

The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle

Spending more time on the couch with Netflix than you are moving your body? You could be living a very sedentary lifestyle. Research has found that sedentary behaviour is associated with impaired cognitive function. In particular, a review of eight studies found a negative association between sedentary behaviour and cognitive function¹. This means that higher levels of inactivity were associated with lower levels of observed cognitive performance2. Sitting for long periods is thought to affect the body’s ability to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and to break down body fat - all of which can increase the risk for dementia. Indeed, a meta-analysis using data from over 250,000 participants found that individuals who led more sedentary lifestyles were at a 30% higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who were not3

The link between exercise and brain function

Exercise is one of the important steps to improve brain health. And here are a few reasons why…

  • The structure of the brain can be positively influenced by exercise: experts believe that exercise might be beneficial because it can increase connectivity between brain regions involved in cognitive function4
  • Research also suggests that exercise can prevent age-related shrinking of a specific brain region associated with memory, and may even increase the volume of other memory-related brain regions (which can impact how efficiently the brain works)5.
  • Exercise is also associated with increased blood flow⁶ to the brain, and releases the neurotransmitter serotonin⁷ which can help regulate mood and emotions.
  • It can impact your brain health as you age. One study looked at middle-aged people who didn’t exercise regularly and compared them to people who exercised at least twice a week. Those who incorporated exercise into their routine were found to be 52% less likely to develop dementia in later life compared to the group who didn’t exercise. Regular moderate-to-vigorous physical activity in particular was linked to healthy cognitive ageing.

Brain-boosting exercise

What’s the best exercise for mental health? As there is generally not one type of exercise that fits all, it’s important to choose a form of exercise that will keep you engaged and motivated. If you’re not a fan of the gym it’s likely you won’t be able to commit to going in the long term so pick something that you will find fun to do!

If you’re looking for a way to start, walking is a simple, free and accessible form of exercise that has notable cognitive benefits. One study found that reaching approximately 8,000 steps a day is associated with slower levels of cognitive decline compared with those who only reach 2,000 steps or less a day⁹. Research has also shown that older adults who took part in aerobic walking exercise three or more times a week later showed increased hippocampal size compared to those in a control group, who showed a decrease in hippocampal size one year later5. The hippocampus is a part of the brain that plays an important role in memory and sensory processing¹⁰.

Other forms of exercise associated with improved brain health include resistance training¹¹ and yoga¹². Even non-cardio exercise such as getting outside and gardening is said to have benefits that help with maintaining a healthy brain¹³. Ultimately, the most important thing is to aim to do an activity that raises your heart rate for at least 30 minutes, three to five times a week¹⁴.

Check the daily checklist for a healthy brain.

  1. Falck RS, Davis JC, Liu Ambrose T. (2016). What is the association between sedentary behaviour and cognitive function? A systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 51:800-811
  1. Steinberg SI, Sammel MD, Harel BT, et al. (2015). Exercise, sedentary pastimes, and cognitive performance in healthy older adults. American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias®. 30(3):290-298
  1. Yan S et al. (2020). Association between sedentary behavior and the risk of dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Transl Psychiatry. 10(1):112
  1. Chirles TJ et al. (2017). Exercise training and functional connectivity changes in MCI and healthy elders. J Alzheimers Dis JAD. 57(3):845-856
  1. Erickson KI et al. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 108(7):3017–3022
  1. Kleinloog JPD et al. (2019). Aerobic exercise training improves cerebral blood flow and executive function: A randomized, controlled cross-over trial in sedentary older men. Front. Aging Neurosci. 11:333
  1. Lin T, Kuo Y. (2013). Exercise benefits brain function: The monoamine connection. Brain Sci. 3(1): 39-53
  1. Rovio S et al. (2005). Leisure-time physical activity at midlife and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Lancet Neurol. 4(11):705-711
  1. Rabin JS et al. (2019). Associations of physical activity and β-Amyloid with longitudinal cognition and neurodegeneration in clinically normal older adults. JAMA Neurol. 76(10):1203-1210

Eichenbaum H, Schoenbaum G, Young B, Bunsey M. (1996). Functional organization of the hippocampal memory system. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 93:13500-13507

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