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.