Brain Health and Active Aging (Healthy Aging)
This article originally appeared in Healthy Aging on June 20, 2023.
Brain Health and Active Aging
By Sabrena Jo, PhD
Nearly everyone experiences memory or thinking problems as they age, as it’s a seemingly inevitableelement of the aging process. You can think of it as the “creaky knees” of mental health; sometimes, wesimply feel our age, no matter how healthy our lifestyle is or what preventive measures we take.
That said, there are ways to stem that tide—to preserve memory, cognition, and overall mental health—including physical activity, which has become an increasing focus of research in recent years, and for goodreason. There are a number of
psychological benefits Link: (https://health.gov/our-work/nutrition-physicalactivity/
physical-activity-guidelines) associated with regular physical activity. The immediate benefits—thoseseen with a single bout of exercise—include reduced feelings of short-term anxiety, improved sleep, andimproved cognitive function.
More long-term effects—that is, the benefits seen with regular participation in a physical-activity program—include decreased depressive symptoms, reduced long-term anxiety, improvements in various aspects ofsleep (for example, quality, efficiency, deep sleep, reduced daytime sleepiness, and reduced frequency ofthe use of medication to aid sleep), improved cognition (for example, memory, attention, executivefunction, processing speed, and the ability to retrieve and use information) and enhanced quality of life.
All of this probably comes as little surprise, as the connection between physical and mental health is wellestablished. Stated simply, exercise is good for you in almost every way imaginable, including severaldirect positive impacts on mental health.
What the Research Reveals
Importantly, it’s never too late to start when it comes to improving your mental health through physicalactivity. In a review of research conducted on physical activity and successful aging Link:
, it was found, perhaps predictably, that physicallyactive middle-aged and older adults were more likely to age successfully than their less activecounterparts. While the effect was stronger among the younger study participants, the protective effect ofphysical activity declined annually by only 3%.
Recent research conducted as part of the larger
Exercise in Adults with Mild Memory Problems (EXERT)study Link: (https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02814526), found that low-intensity movements, such asstretching, balance exercise, and very light strength-training exercise, were enough to
halt cognitivedecline Link: (https://www.acefitness.org/continuing-education/certified/march-2023/8270/the-role-of-physical-activity-inthe-
in individuals with mild cognitive impairment. All it took was 45 to 50minutes of movement three or four times per week.
Physical activity has also been shown to not only
improve the quality of life Link:
for individuals with cognitive impairment, dementia, Alzheimer’sdisease, and dementia but also slow the progression of those diseases. Importantly, physical activity is alow- or no-cost way to treat and prevent age-related declines in mental health.
Finally, researchers who investigated the roles of nutrition, physical activity, and other lifestyle factors inthe
prevention of cognitive decline and dementia Link: (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8624903/)
concluded that there is compelling evidence that physical activity when coupled with healthy nutrition andan overall healthy lifestyle, plays an important role in the maintenance of cognitive health and theprevention of cognitive decline. In fact, they write, “It is credible that this must be the path to travel.”
How Exercise Impacts the Brain
While the effects of exercise on mental health are well established, it remains unclear which exercise-related variables produce these beneficial effects.
In one study, researchers examined the extent to which four exercise variables—exercise behavior,exercise-induced mood, exercise self-efficacy, and social support—can
predict depression symptoms Link:
in older adults. They found that all four variables were negativelyassociated with depressive symptoms. In other words, the more exercise people performed, the better theirmood and self-efficacy became, and the better their support system, the more improvement they saw intheir symptoms.
how physical activity impacts cognitive health Link: (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26045020/)
reveals a few important findings. For example, improvements in physical activity may enhance the brain’sability to adapt due to experience (this is called brain plasticity). In addition, regular physical activity andmanaging cardiovascular risk factors, like diabetes, obesity, smoking, and hypertension, have been foundto help reduce the risk of cognitive decline and may reduce the risk of dementia.
Cardiorespiratory exercise was found to improve memory and learning while lowering anxiety anddepression. Lastly, when it comes to resistance training,
emerging evidence Link:
suggests that it can improve executive function andmemory and promote positive structural changes in the brain.
It’s important that we also view physical activity in a positive sense, not simply as a means of avoidingnegative outcomes in our lives. Remember the last of the long-term benefits mentioned above? Physicalactivity is not simply about preventing disease or reducing symptoms; it’s also about enhancing the qualityof life and living longer, better, more fulfilling, and happier lives.
However, physical activity alone is not enough, as a
healthy lifestyle Link:
(https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmed.2019.00204/full) involves a number of behaviors that all olderadults can incorporate into their daily lives. In addition to performing regular physical activity, pursuingintellectually stimulating activities, staying socially active, adopting a positive attitude, effectivelymanaging stress, eating healthy, and sleeping well are all part of aging well.
Physical activity provides countless benefits as we age—to both mind and body. So, find an activity youenjoy and get moving. All it takes is 45 minutes or so, three or four days a week, and you will be on thepath to a happier and healthier life.
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