How Moving Your Body Keeps Your Brain Sharp

Compelling evidence shows exercise improves memory and cognition. For example, a 2010 study on primates revealed that regular exercise helped the monkeys learn new tasks twice as quickly as non-exercising monkeys, and researchers believe this might hold true for people as well.

How Exercise Protects and Improves Brain Function

Previous research has demonstrated that exercise promotes brain health by releasing hormones like brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) from the muscles, which encourage the growth of new brain cells. This process is known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity. Also, physical activity can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years.

Your brain’s memory center (hippocampus) is particularly adaptable and capable of growing new cells throughout your entire lifetime, even into your 90s, provided your lifestyle supports it.

Similarly, a year-long human study found that adults who exercised regularly enlarged their brain’s memory centre by 1 to 2 percent per year, where typically the hippocampus tends to shrink with age.


Exercise Also Promotes Psychological Health and Good Mood

Memory and cognition are not the only benefits associated with physical fitness. Exercise is also known to dispel depression — in many cases more effectively than antidepressants. One of the ways exercise promotes mental health is by normalizing insulin resistance and boosting natural “feel good” hormones and neurotransmitters associated with mood control, including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA.

One research has also found clear links between inactivity and depression. Women who sat for more than seven hours a day were found to have a 47 percent higher risk of depression than women who sat for four hours or less per day.

Those who didn’t participate in any physical activity at all had a 99 percent higher risk of developing depression than women who exercised. Creativity also gets a boost from physical activity. According to Stanford University researchers, a brisk walk can increase creativity by up to 60 percent.

Keep Up Your Physical Activity

Once you’re in your 60s and above, physical movement becomes really paramount, so this is not the time to fall prey to the couch. Plenty of research confirms that even if you start exercising at this time, you stand to gain a great deal. It’s really never too late to begin. But perhaps even more important than maintaining an exercise program is to simply move around a lot and avoid sitting as much as possible.

In one study, seniors between the ages of 60 and 80 who were the most physically active showed higher levels of brain oxygenation and healthier patterns of brain activity, particularly in the hippocampus and in connecting different brain regions together.

Such patterns are associated with improved cognitive function. These seniors were not athletes. They didn’t even exercise formally, but rather got their activity in the form of walking, gardening, and simply moving about each day — and those who moved the most had significant brain advantages compared to their more sedentary peers.

Based on the evidence, non-exercise movement may in fact be one of the most important keys to a long healthy life, because studies have shown that you simply cannot counteract the ill effects of multiple hours of sitting by exercising vigorously for an hour here or there during the week.

We strongly suggest walking at least 7,000 steps a day or more each day. Other ways to rack up movement points is to park further away from the entrance; take the stairs instead of the elevator; or take a Gratitude Walk. The options are endless.

While it’s never too late to start exercising, the earlier you begin and the more consistent you are, the greater your long-term rewards. Having an active lifestyle is really an investment in your future well-being, both physically and mentally.

The science is really clear on this point: memory loss and cognitive decline really depends on your lifestyle. Your brain has the capacity to regenerate and grow throughout your entire life, from cradle to grave, and movement is a major key for all of these brain-boosting processes to occur.