Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on Sept. 11. Volunteer today

4 Simple Rules to Shape Up Your Memory

The latest research shows that all of us can pump up our brainpower by exercising regularly

1: Start now

It's never too late to start exercising for brain health, says Laura DeFina, M.D., medical director of research at the Cooper Institute and lead author of the study. "People always say, 'I'm 55 and I've never exercised. Does starting now really make a difference?' I tell them this: 'The answer is simple — yes, it absolutely matters.' "

Subscribe to the AARP Health Newsletter

In a pivotal study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers found that seniors 60- to 79-years-old who completed a six-month program of walking briskly on a regular basis showed an increase in the size of the hippocampus, as well as an increase in levels of BDNF comparable to those found in people almost two years younger. (The hippocampus typically shrinks by 0.5 percent each year, starting in some people as early as their 40s.) Two control groups in the study — one did stretching and toning exercises, another did nothing — showed no brain changes at all.

"This was the first time that we were able to demonstrate that you can actually increase the size of the hippocampus," says Kirk Erickson, a neuroscientist at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the study's lead authors.

"It was as if we'd rolled back the clock," he adds. "It proves that exercising even in late adulthood, even if you've not been active before, is not futile. People need to know that dementia is not inevitable."


  • If your doctor says you're healthy enough for exercise, find something that feels good to you. "The best exercise to do is the one you'll keep doing," says Carstensen. "It should be something you love, not something you dread."

  • Recruit a friend or coworker to take a fitness class with you. Being with others can motivate you to keep going.

  • Lay out your workout clothes the night before so you see them first thing in the morning. Athletes call this a "prime" — your personal signal to get moving.

  • Plug in your iPod. Studies show that those who work out while listening to music exercise harder, and longer — without even realizing it.

Next page: Aim for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week. »

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Video Extra

LAUGH OUT LOUD: Cartoonist and animator Walt Handelsman takes a hilarious look at middle-age forgetfulness.

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

AARP Staying Sharp: Keep Your Brain Healthy


Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Walgreens 1 discount membership aarp

Members can earn 50 points per $1 spent on select health & wellness products at Walgreens.

member benefit aarp hear usa

Members save 15% on easy listening devices and more at the HearUSA Hearing Shop.

Eye Med 4 Membership Benefit AARP Discount

Members save up to 60% on eye exams and 30% on glasses at Target Optical.

Membership Benefits Discounts Email Genius

Brain boost? Get AARP email for access to memory exercises & more that help you focus.