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Exercise Benefits the Brain, Scientists Report – but How Much Exercise? New Report Provides Answers

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Just about anyone who reads articles about dementia knows that there is mounting evidence of the benefits of exercise. Hardly a week goes by that we at AgingOptions aren’t running across another report that demonstrates how those who work out have better cognitive health than those who remain sedentary. But just how much exercise is necessary to experience the cognitive benefits? Do we all have to become marathon runners in order to keep our brains working properly?

Exercise Works Best Over Time

This recent article from the website HealthDay provides an answer that is both encouraging and – for most of us – a lot more realistic.  “It’s well-known that exercise benefits the brain as well as the heart and muscles,” the article begins, “but new research pinpoints just how much – and what types – of exercise may promote thinking skills as you age.” After reviewing data from dozens of medical research studies, “scientists found that those who exercised an average of at least 52 hours over about six months – and for about an hour during each session – showed improvements in their thinking skills.” This finding appears to mark a change of approach from many other articles that stress a certain number of rigorous hours of hard workouts per week as the key measurement. As the study author from the University of Miami stated, “The data seem to suggest [that] you have to keep exercise up for a while before you start to see these changes actually impact your life in a positive manner.”

While it may sound like this new study is just one more in a long line of similar research reports, the HealthDay article makes it clear that in fact it represents something of a breakthrough. “While much scientific evidence has established positive effects in the brain from exercise,” the article says, “scant research has addressed just how much exercise is needed to promote brain health.” In reading about this study in HealthDay, we’re encouraged for several reasons. First, it’s heartening to read that exercise really does correlate with better cognitive health. But more than that, we like the emphasis on exercise becoming a habit. Some of the articles we’ve read recently imply that, unless we’re doing three strenuous hours of maximum-effort aerobics every week, it’s not doing us any good. As it turns out, consistency seems to be as important as strenuousness when it comes to the benefits of working out.

“Super Encouraging” Results

In compiling the research, the study team reviewed nearly 100 medical studies involving more than 11,000 participants. These studies focused on older adults (average age 73) who were asked to exercise for a period of at least four weeks. Researchers then analyzed the effect on brain performance of various amounts and levels of exercise, comparing the thinking and memory skills of the exercise group against a group of peers who did not start a new exercise routine.  The University of Miami team discovered that the study participants who exercised “experienced specific, significant changes in mental sharpness [including] improvements in processing speed, or the amount of time needed to complete a task; and executive function, or the ability to manage time, pay attention and achieve goals.” They called these results “super-encouraging.” In the words of the author of the research report, “The study provides evidence that with exercise, you can actually turn back the clock of aging in your brain.”

If these study subjects weren’t out running marathons, what were they doing? HealthDay says that among the exercise group, the most common type was aerobic exercise, especially walking. In some studies, participants combined aerobic exercise with strength or resistance training; among a smaller number, so-called “mind-body exercises” such as yoga or tai chi were part of the mix. But the good news is that the type of exercise you choose doesn’t appear to matter all that much. “Ultimately,” says the report, “any form of exercise was found to be beneficial to thinking skills in older adults, including aerobic exercise, strength training, mind-body exercise or combinations of these.” Even those with some level of established dementia appeared to experience cognitive benefits from exercising over a prolonged period of time.

Healthier Brain, Better Attitude

Medical experts quoted by HealthDay say that exercise appears to benefit the brain in at least two ways. The first and most obvious is improved blood flow to the entire body, including the brain, which clearly has a positive impact on brain health. But the added benefit of exercise is that it produces endorphins, the natural “feel-good” chemicals the body manufactures that promote increased motivation and enjoyment. The presence of endorphins “improves your overall view of life, which is beneficial in terms of cognition,” HealthDay says; and with a better outlook on life, the motivation is there to keep on exercising.

The bottom line advice couldn’t be simpler, says the study author: it’s time to get moving. “We’re not made to be sitting around,” she said. “We need movement. I encourage people to make an appointment with themselves to get moving and to keep it up for a while.” It’s tough to argue with advice like that! Here at AgingOptions we have similar advice to offer when it comes to retirement planning, namely that it’s time to stop sitting around hoping your retirement future will somehow take care of itself. Instead, get moving and come learn the facts about a breakthrough in retirement planning called LifePlanning. Can a retirement plan show you how to make sure your medical, financial, legal, housing and family “threads” are all woven together into a seamless fabric? Yes, if it’s a LifePlan from AgingOptions.

For a simple and cost-free next step, come join Rajiv Nagaich from AgingOptions at an upcoming LifePlanning Seminar. We offer these extremely popular, information-packed throughout the region – so for dates, times and locations, visit our Live Events page where you can select the seminar of your choice. Then register online, or call us for assistance. We’ll look forward to meeting you soon!

(originally reported at

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