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Exercise for Better Brain Health

Staying active helps reduce cognitive decline

Mature woman at the gym, exercise helps brain health


People who exercised on a regular basis ranked their brain health higher than those who didn't exercise.

En español | Most of us don't get enough exercise, and we have any number of excuses. Too tired. No time. Too expensive. Lack of willpower. And, 25 percent of us say we're simply satisfied being sedentary.

Does this sound familiar? If so, you're far from alone. The majority of us age 40-plus are not logging the recommended 2.5 hours per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity that's good for us, according to AARP's latest healthy aging survey.

It would strain credulity to claim we don't know any better. We're saturated with messages promising the well-documented benefits of exercise: better sleep, better weight, better heart, better mood. Yet, most of us persist with the excuses.

What if I told you that the stakes of not exercising are higher than you might have thought? What if I told you that physical exercise is good not only for the way you look and feel, it's also good for your brain — good for raising the odds that you'll stay mentally sharp and reduce the risk of cognitive decline?

It's true. Staying active is key to maintaining our brains. Getting regular exercise can even change our brain structure and improve its functioning.

We've long suspected that exercise was an important component of brain health, and it's been a point of focus of AARP's work with Age UK and the recently launched Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH). An early yield of that collaboration is a new evidence-based consensus report by GCBH, saying definitively that brisk walking, cycling, strength training and group exercise classes can provide benefits to our brain health, as well as our overall health.

See also: 10 Things to Look for in a Fitness Tracker

Based on the scientific evidence, the GCBH concluded that:

  • Physical activity has a positive impact on brain health.

  • People can change their behavior to become more physically active at any age.

  • People who participate in purposeful exercise show beneficial changes in brain structure and function.

  • People who lead a physically active lifestyle have a lower risk of cognitive decline.

Although we do not yet have sufficient evidence that physical activity can reduce the risk of brain diseases that cause dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, other brain benefits are clear-cut.

See also: Quiz - Are you smarter than an 8th-Grader?

People who exercised on a regular basis ranked their brain health higher than those who didn't exercise. In fact, adults who exercised regularly reported higher levels of improvements in their ability to solve problems, manage stress, learn new things, pay attention and remember things in the past five years compared with people who did not regularly exercise. Many adults (67 percent) reporting problems remembering things do not get the recommended amounts of exercise.

To jump-start your quest for better brain health, try out the Staying Sharp program, an exciting new offering from AARP.

For the sake of your brain — in the interest of staying mentally as well as physically sharp — let's make an extra effort to get moving!

Jo Ann Jenkins is CEO of AARP.