While it has long been assumed that activities that challenge your intellect is the key to retaining brain function as you age, a new study conducted in the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh suggests that physical activity may actually do you more good when it comes to ways to improve brain health.

Researching Factors to Improve Brain Health

Researcher and lecturer in Psychology at Heriot-Watt University, Alan J. Gow, PhD, and his colleagues examined the effect of both physical activity and activities of a more social or intellectual nature.

They discovered that participants who engaged in more physical exercise had less shrinkage in their brains, as well as less damage to the wiring of the brains, and higher volumes of gray matter than their counterparts. The intellectual activities didn't seem to make any difference in overall brain health.

How Exercise Affects the Brain

The participants, who were 70 years of age, self-reported their activity levels, though didn't include the types of exercise performed. The study also didn't measure previous activity levels.

Although the mechanisms through which exercise improves brain health aren't fully understood, "some of the suggested pathways might be via a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, or through some direct effects on the structure of the brain," Gow says.

Further, while the researchers couldn't confirm the same type of benefit from mental exercise, Gow points out these activities might be important earlier in life so this outcome isn't clear.

Aging and Exercise

What these findings mean for you when it comes to aging is that more physical activity is certainly better. And while the study focused on senior citizens, you don't have be in that age group to reap the mental and health benefits of staying physically fit.

If you're already active, this study should reinforce the benefits of sticking with your exercise regime.

Recommendations for Aging and Exercise

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that healthy adults aged 65 and older engage in 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity spread out over the course of a week, for example, 30 minutes, five times a week. This can include walking, biking, and playing games and sports. In addition, strengthening activities that engage all muscle groups (such as lifting weights, doing yoga, or engaging in strenuous gardening) should also be done twice a week.

If you have a chronic condition or limited mobility, even small tasks like standing up and sitting down in your chair or walking across the room can help you to improve your fitness level and build up to more challenging activities. Check with your doctor for appropriate options for your health and ability level.

Also remember that incorporating some social and intellectual activities, such as having lunch with friends, doing a word scramble, and playing a board game still plan an important role in improving your quality of life. Even if they don't have a direct impact on your aging mind, they can keep your spirits up and help you feel your best.

Alan Gow PhD, AFBPsS, FHEA, reviewed this article.




Gow, Alan, PhD, Lecturer in Psychology, Heriot-Watt University. Email interview. 17 Feb. 2013.

Gow, Alan et al. "Neuroprotective lifestyles and the aging brain: Activity, atrophy, and white matter integrity." Neurology 79 (23 Oct. 2012): 1802-1808. Web. 20 Feb. 2013.

NIH Senior Health. "Exercise: Benefits of Exercise." National Institutes of Health. N.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2013.

World Health Organization. "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health." N.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2013