Why Exercise Protects Your Brain’s Health (and What Kind Is Best)

Both physical + mental activity preserve cognitive skills, potentially lower dementia risk
Head illustrating exercise keeping the brain active

You’ve taken to heart recommendations to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity a week to improve your physical fitness.

Advertising Policy

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

What you might not realize is that with every step you take, every mile you pedal or every lap you swim around the pool, you’re enhancing your cognitive fitness. Recent studies suggest that the activities you do to improve your body also benefit your brain.

“We know that physical exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, is very beneficial for maintaining brain health, even in people who are at risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (AD),” says neuropsychologist Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD. “You can make a major difference in terms of how your body is functioning and, as a result, how your brain is functioning.”

So, to preserve your cognitive health, your best bet is to work out your body and your mind through regular exercise and mentally and socially stimulating activities.

Get moving for your brain

In a recent study, 454 older adults underwent yearly physical exams and cognitive tests for 20 years and agreed to donate their brains for research when they died. The participants were given accelerometers, which tracked their movement and physical activity around the clock.

Those who moved more scored better on the memory and thinking tests, and every increase in physical activity by one standard deviation was associated with a 31% lower risk of dementia, the researchers reported. The association between physical activity and cognitive function remained consistent even after the study authors accounted for the participants’ brain pathology and whether or not they had dementia, according to the study.

In another recent study, 160 sedentary older people with mild cognitive impairment were assigned to take part in several options. They could do aerobic exercise (three times a week for 45 minutes per session), eat a heart-healthy Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, combine aerobic exercise with the DASH diet, or receive health education.

During the six-month study, those who followed the DASH diet alone did not improve on assessments of executive function (responsible for tasks like planning, problem-solving and multitasking), while the health-education group’s function worsened, according to the study. However, those who exercised showed improvements in thinking and memory, and those who combined exercise and the DASH diet improved even more, the researchers reported.

Advertising Policy

How does exercise help your brain?

Physical activity may benefit the brain in a number of ways, such as:

  • Promoting cardiovascular health.
  • Improving blood flow to the brain.
  • Reducing inflammation.
  • Lowering levels of stress hormones.

All of these factors can adversely affect cognition, Dr. Bonner-Jackson explains.

Exercise may provide physical benefits to the brain, too, such as increasing the thickness of the cerebral cortex and improving the integrity of your white matter, the nerve fibers that connect areas of the brain’s nerve-cell-rich gray matter. It also promotes neuroplasticity, your brain’s ability to form new neural connections and adapt throughout life. “One of the key places that happens is in the hippocampus, which is a very important area of the brain for memory,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson explains.

What’s especially encouraging is you don’t necessarily have to go overboard or meet the physical activity guidelines in order to benefit your brain.

In one recent study, researchers concluded that even among people who did not meet the activity guidelines, each hour of light-intensity physical activity and achieving 7,500 steps or more daily was associated with higher total brain volume. This was “equivalent to approximately 1.4 to 2.2 years less brain aging.”

“There are a lot of potential mechanisms of exercise that may be combining to benefit brain health,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson says. “In general, even in people who are at risk for development of Alzheimer’s or other dementias, it can stave off decline in some cases for many years and help people function better.”

How mental ‘exercise’ also protects your brain

As you put your body through its paces, give your brain a workout, too. Research suggests that engaging in mentally stimulating activities helps build your cognitive reserve, your ability to withstand adverse brain changes before you exhibit symptoms. Experts believe that people who have attained a higher education level or have been exposed to more brain-stimulating activities may be more resilient to these negative effects.

Advertising Policy

“We think these new skills and habits create more connections between brain cells and brain areas,” he adds. “The more new things we learn, the more connections there are, so even if some of them die as a result of brain disease, there are still some connections that remain, which allows you to remain more functional.”

However, research about the benefits of specialized brain-training programs has produced mixed results, Dr. Bonner-Jackson notes: “The majority of evidence would indicate that these tests help you do better in a particular area, so if it’s training your attention, you’ll get better at doing that attention task. What’s less clear is whether it will generalize to other areas of your life.”

Maintaining a robust social life and staying socially and intellectually engaged with others also has been shown to bolster your brain function. By communicating with others, you challenge your mind to interpret verbal and visual cues and respond to them accordingly. Social interaction also can improve your mood and, potentially, ward off depression, which can adversely affect your cognition.

“We encourage people not to be too socially isolated or withdraw too much because that can have detrimental effects on mood and cognition,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson advises. “Overall, your body and mind are connected, so if you’re staying physically, mentally and socially active and treating your body right, you can make a world of difference.”

What you can do

Dr. Bonner-Jackson offers these take-aways:

  1. Stay physically active. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (like walking, jogging, biking or swimming) a week, but realize that any physical activity can benefit your brain.
  2. Try new, mentally stimulating activities you enjoy. Practice new hobbies, read a new book, or learn new skills, such as woodworking, gardening, solving puzzles or math problems, or mastering a new language or musical instrument.
  3. Stay socially engaged, and avoid isolation. Schedule regular get-togethers with friends and family, join a social organization, or volunteer at your church, hospital or charitable group.  

This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Men’s Health Advisor.

Advertising Policy