More evidence that exercise helps keep your brain fit

Active senior couple running in the woods.

I often prescribe exercise for my patients, sometimes more than once in the same visit — exercise for cardiovascular health, weight loss, stress management, lifting mood. Scientific evidence strongly supports the benefits of activity for all of these things. Plus, it’s free, and there are few side effects or medication interactions.

So, is there an “exercise prescription” for boosting your brain?

Mounting evidence also suggests that exercise can boost brain function and protect against dementia. This makes great physiologic sense: increased blood flow to the brain means more oxygen and nutrients in, and toxins out. But questions remain. Will exercise help older adults? What about those who already have some cognitive impairment, even early dementia? What type of exercise, how much, and for how long?

A group of exercise physiologists in Australia scoured the research to try to answer those questions.

They examined over 10,000 quality studies of exercise and brain function. By “quality” we mean randomized, controlled clinical trials (RCTs), which are experiments designed to test a specific hypothesis. The authors then limited their scope to published studies of people over 50 years old that tested at least four weeks of supervised exercise intervention, and included a validated measure of brain function at the beginning and end of each study. The research examined included healthy subjects or those with mild cognitive impairment, but excluded people with neurological or psychiatric diagnoses like strokes or depression. After all that, the list was whittled down to 39 studies.

They then took the data from all those studies and applied complex statistical analyses to evaluate:

  • the types of exercise (cardio, resistance training like weights, both, yoga, or tai chi)
  • the exercise intensity (low, medium, high)
  • the duration, in minutes
  • frequency (how often) and length (1 to 3 months, 3 to 6 months, or over 6 months)
  • various brain functions (general cognition, attention, executive function, and memory).

So, if you’re 50 or over, what workouts really help your brain?

The gist of it is: any moderate cardio exercise performed regularly for at least 45 minutes, regardless of frequency or length, improved multiple cognitive functions, as did resistance training. Tai chi improved memory. These results were seen regardless of baseline cognition, meaning even people with early dementia saw benefits. Yoga did not have a statistically significant effect, but the authors point out that there were fewer articles testing tai chi and yoga interventions.

So what does this mean? The authors expressed high confidence that many types of exercise can improve memory, and that we should focus on developing specific exercise prescriptions tailored to improving specific cognitive functions. In addition, more research is needed for activities well-suited for people with mobility issues (for example, yoga and tai chi).

My opinion? This study provides further evidence supporting an active lifestyle generally, and an exercise plan specifically. Do you want to boost your brain function? You now know that you can walk briskly, jog, hike, cycle, do aerobics, or dance around for about 45 minutes to help keep your brain in shape. Or, take a Pilates class, lift some weights, perhaps even get some yard work or home improvements done, and see a benefit.

Take-away: If you want to feel and function better, do something, just about anything, active.


Exercise interventions for cognitive function in adults older than 50: a systematic review with meta-analysisBritish Journal of Sports Medicine, March 2017.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

1 Corinthians 3:1-2 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able

,1 Corinthians 13:11 When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.

1 Corinthians 14:20 Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature.

Psalm 65:9 You visit the earth and cause it to overflow; You greatly enrich it; The stream of God is full of water; You prepare their grain, for thus You prepare the earth.

2 Thessalonians 1:3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater;

Proverbs 1:5 A wise man will hear and increase in learning, And a man of understanding will acquire wise counsel,

Acts 12:24 But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.

Proverbs 11:24 There is one who scatters, and yet increases all the more, And there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want.

Ezekiel 8:6 And He said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing, the great abominations which the house of Israel are committing here, so that I would be far from My sanctuary? But yet you will see still greater abominations.”

Ephesians 4:16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

2 Chronicles 7:16 “For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that My name may be there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually.

2 Corinthians 9:10 Now He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness;

Hebrews 5:12-14 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

1 Peter 2:2 like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation,

Luke 8:14-15 “The seed which fell among the thorns, these are the ones who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with worries and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to maturity. “But the seed in the good soil, these are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart, and hold it fast, and bear fruit with perseverance.

Matthew 13:22-23 “And the one on whom seed was sown among the thorns, this is the man who hears the word, and the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful. “And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.”

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