It’s common knowledge that staying fit as you age is ideal. Not only does a regular training plan help prevent or delay several aging-related physical health issues, but maintaining strong muscles means you maintain independence, too, continuing to carry out everyday activities without needing others’ support.
However, it’s not just your body that benefits from physical activity. Working out has been shown to also keep your brain fit as you age. And we’re not just talking about prime mental health (though, of course, exercise is essential for that). Recent studies show that physical activity is linked to a strengthening of the brain’s plasticity — its structures, functions, and connections. And according to some experts, the older you get, the more dependent the health of your brain becomes on physical exercise.
Why and how this actually happens is still mostly a mystery. But what is becoming more apparent is that even though our bodies get older, if we keep them fit, we keep our minds fit too.
Here are just some of the ways that exercise bolsters the brain as we age.
What Are the Effects of Exercise on the Brain?
1. Exercise Keeps the Brain Juiced Up as You Age
The brain is a relatively small piece of human machinery. Science shows, however, that while this three-pound organ takes up less than 3% of the body’s total mass, it receives approximately 15% of the body’s entire blood supply. That means that for our brain to be kept in prime fighting condition, we need to maintain a healthy network of blood vessels as well as ensure a rich and regular flow of blood to the gray matter.
One of the best ways to both improve the health and function of blood vessels and encourage the growth of new ones is through regular exercise. According to one study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, exercise prompts the formation of certain types of blood vessels in muscles.
But what’s more, in another study published in the American Academy of Neurology, the results of a six-month program of vigorous aerobic activity undertaken by 206 older adults were shown to prompt an increase in blood flow to the specific areas of the brain responsible for verbal skills and memory and mental sharpness.
“This change in verbal fluency is what you'd expect to see in someone five years younger," Dr. Marc J. Poulin, the study’s author from the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, said. “As we all find out eventually, we lose a bit mentally and physically as we age.
“But even if you start an exercise program later in life, the benefit to your brain can be immense. Our findings may be important, especially for older adults at risk for Alzheimer's and other dementias and brain disease."
2. Exercise Boosts the Aging Brain’s Immune Cells
A further study on how exercise keeps the brain fit is based on the issue of microglia. These are resident immune cells in the brain that regulate brain development, injury repair, and the upkeep of neuronal networks.
This study — published in the peer-reviewed journal, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity — reveals that regular workouts actually reprogram microglia in the aged brain, boosting its ability to kickstart senescent cells, or old cells that — instead of dying off — build up in bodily tissue and can contribute to impaired brain function and many other conditions associated with aging.
3. Exercise Sustains Healthy Brain Structure
Some of the most recent research on the subject includes a 2021 study published in the journal of Clinical Interventions in Aging, which showed how important training can be for sustaining healthy brain structure.
The study, carried out by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, was conducted across five years and involved groups of older adults from the general population. While some were encouraged to maintain two weekly workouts of moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT), others were guided to do at least 30 minutes of daily exercise, which is, of course, in keeping with the national physical activity guidelines. Cardiorespiratory health, brain volume, and cortical thickness (a measure of gray matter associated with cognition) were then measured across the five years of regular exercise.
The results showed that while both groups’ brains benefitted from regular training, the second group proved to have the best-preserved brain structure across the half-decade.
And in an unexpected find, the researchers discovered that in the second group, study participants who chose their own form of exercise fared the best out of everyone.
According to study co-author Asta Hasberg, Ph.D., professor of Neuromedicine and Movement Science, this implies “that more time spent being physically active and performing an activity chosen by the individual is key to better brain health. Also, diligently following physical activity guidelines provides a significant cardiorespiratory effect in healthy older adults.”
In other words, while all exercise is good for your mind and body, the best benefits are more easily achieved by embracing a program that you enjoy, and by devoting yourself to a continuous daily commitment.
So, what are you waiting for? Get off of the couch and go for that walk or lace up for a run. Head to the pool or the gym. Do whatever gets your body moving and blood pumping. Train in a way that you love, but ensure that you do it consistently. The more active you are, the better your brain and body will feel — not just today, but for the rest of your life.