Aerobic Exercise Key for Brain Health

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant


Aerobic exercise may offer protection from cognitive decline.

In 2017, researchers at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles published a report concluding that about one-third of Alzheimer’s disease cases could be prevented through changes in habits — including exercise.

A small study by the Center for Ageing and Health at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden has shown that up to a 90 percent reduction in dementia could be associated with fitness regimens begun by women in their 50s, who were followed for the next 44 years. Very few of the fittest women experienced dementia. The benefit lessened for women who were active, but not as fit.

Although any activity is better than no activity, an occasional stroll to the mailbox or quietly puttering in the garden won’t do it. To achieve this positive effect, the World Health Organization recommends that people 65 and older to participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate to 75 minutes of intense activity every week.

You may not dream of achieving a buff beach body, but staying fit may benefit the brain.

Other studies indicate that starting younger in life offers the most benefit, but “it’s never too late to start,” said Cathy James, co-chairwoman of the New York State Alzheimer’s Association Coalition. “Sometimes we think of high impact, but even moderate exercise may help us lower our risk for things like Alzheimer’s disease and it can contribute to brain health.”

If the exercise involves learning and retaining skills, such as taking a martial arts class, that may offer more benefits, as would exercise that’s social in nature, such as participating on a sports team. Involving music could also promote more brain activity while in motion, such as a dance class.

“The overall pattern is very encouraging that aerobic activity is a means of reducing risk of cognitive impairment down the line or at least delaying its onset.” said physician Jennifer Muniak at UR Medicine division of geriatrics. “It’s very difficult to study lifestyle interventions in general, so we can’t definitively point to the extent of the benefit or exact mechanisms as of yet.


“But in general, the evidence as a whole is very encouraging, and is a reminder that through lifestyle interventions we do have some control over how we age.”

Muniak encourages younger people to start the habit of exercise earlier in life, rather than waiting. But older adults can still benefit from exercise, including improving overall health, possibly reducing the need for certain kinds of medication (with doctor approval), and supporting brain health.

“It’s truly never too late when it comes to initiating positive lifestyle changes,” Muniak said. “While we should be working closely with children and young adults to encourage good lifestyle habits from the start, older adults can see immediate as well as long lasting benefits when they increase physical activity and improve nutrition.”

Though exercise offers numerous benefits to body and mind, it can’t guarantee lifelong cognitive health. Genetics, nutrition, social engagement and advanced age all represent other risk factors for cognitive decline.

Before undertaking any change in nutrition or exercise, consult with a health care provider. A personal trainer may offer helpful advice for exercising safely and effectively.