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Regular exercise helps keep our brains sharp as we age, study finds

Staying active can be beneficial for consumers’ cognitive health in older age

Older couple taking a walk
Photo (c) Ariel Skelley - Getty Images
A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Georgia explored how exercise can help keep consumers’ brains sharp into older age. According to the findings, regular physical activity may help older consumers retain their cognitive abilities in later life. 

“This finding isn’t saying, ‘If you’re older, you need to go out there and start running marathons,’” said researcher Marissa Gogniat. “This is saying if you get more steps, if you’re moving around your environment a little bit more, that can be helpful to your brain health and keep you more independent as you age.” 

Exercise changes the brain

The researchers had 51 older adults participate in the study. The group participated in a six-minute walking test to assess their fitness. They wore monitors that tracked their physical activity, including how many steps they took each day. The participants also underwent MRIs and completed cognitive assessments to evaluate their abilities. 

The researchers identified a clear link between physical activity and cognitive abilities. They learned that those who were the most active had the strongest executive functioning skills. This translates to better memory, attention, flexible thinking, and self-control, among other important skills. 

“We’ve always been told it’s good to exercise, but I think this is some evidence that exercise can actually change your brain,” said Gogniat. “And that impacts the way you’re able to function in your daily life.” 

Age also changes the brain

The researchers explained that different networks in the brain are responsible for resting versus physical activity, though both aren’t activated at the same time. However, as the body ages, it becomes more difficult for these networks to carry out tasks like remembering phone numbers or birthdays. The study findings are important because they show that regular physical activity may prevent this natural decline in cognitive abilities. 

“This paper is exciting because it gives us some evidence that when people whose brain networks aren’t functioning optimally engage in physical activity, we see improvement in their executive function and their independence,” Gogniat said. “We’re not saying you need to radically change your life. 

“Maybe just take the stairs on the way to work. Stand up and walk around a little bit more. That’s where you get the most bang for your buck, not crazy, high-intensity exercise.” 

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