Exercise to keep your mind sharp

Jane Murphy / 25 April 2017 ( 29 April 2019 )

The best way to boost your brain health when you're over 50? Take moderate exercise at least once or twice each week, says a major study.

Regular exercise improves brain function in the over-50s, regardless of whether someone is already showing signs of cognitive decline – and no matter how much or little they've exercised in the past. That's according to Australian research, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Researchers at the University of Canberra analysed the results of 39 earlier studies that looked at the effects of at least four weeks of supervised exercise regimes on memory and thinking skills in older people. Their findings? Fitness programmes of at least moderate intensity that lasted between 45 minutes and an hour per session showed a significant link to improved cognitive performance.

These effects can still be seen in people who only exercise once a week. But, say the researchers, the more you exercise, the greater the brain-boosting benefits will be.

Why exercise is good for your brain

What's the link between exercise and brain health?

How exactly does exercise improve brain power? An increased heart rate sees more oxygen pumped to the brain, along with a cocktail of vital brain-boosting nutrients and a growth hormone that encourages the formation of new neurons and connections.

Interestingly, many studies have suggested that certain key brain areas are larger in people who are physically fit. An example? Regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus – the area of the brain involved in memory and learning – says a 2014 study at the University of British Columbia in Canada.

How to keep your brain young

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Which exercise is best for your brain?

So what kind of exercise should we be doing? According to the new study, aerobic exercise – such as brisk walking, jogging or cycling – was found to boost thinking, learning, reading and reasoning skills.

Meanwhile, resistance training –  such as using weights in the gym, some styles of yoga or even carrying heavy groceries – has a positive effect on the brain's 'executive functions', such as memory and organisation skills.

'This review underscores the link between exercise and brain health and, in line with guidance from the NHS, supports the idea that both strength exercises and aerobic activity can be beneficial for people as they get older,' comments Dr David Reynolds, chief scientific officer at Alzheimer's Research UK.

'While these different types of exercise had positive effects on brain function, they had to be at least moderately intensive – the kind of activity that raises your heart rate and leaves you at least slightly out of breath.'

How to do more exercise without even noticing

Tai chi and cognitive function

Prefer gentler forms of exercise? You may be interested to note that the Australian researchers reserved a special mention for tai chi – the ancient Chinese exercise based on slow, flowing movements and balance – citing it as a potentially more suitable choice for people who can't take part in physically demanding regimes.

'Positive benefits to cognition occurred with an exercise intervention that included tai chi, or resistance and aerobic training, prescribed either in isolation or combined,' they write.

Previous studies have suggested tai chi may be a particularly effective form of exercise for people with arthritis. Researchers at Tufts University in the US found that patients with knee arthritis saw their pain levels more than halved, as well as improved mood, after a 12-week tai chi programme.

Learn more about Tai Chi

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