How Exercise Helps Boost Your Memory-Brain Health as You Age – CNET

As we age, many of us will notice that our memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be. You may have trouble remembering where you left your keys or find it difficult to recall specific events. Still, although it may be common, age-related memory decline can be confronting and worrying.

Fortunately, regular exercise is one way to protect your memory and brain health. Below, we’ll explore the science behind brain function, age and exercise, including the benefits of staying active and tips for starting a fitness routine to support healthy aging.

Understanding memory and brain health

Before we dive into the connection between memory and age, let’s take a step back and look at the basics of how memory works. Any time you record a new memory (for example, learning a new skill), it changes the connections between neurons in your brain. These connections are known as synapses, forming networks in your brain. The more often you’re exposed to a particular memory, the stronger these synapses will become – and the easier it will be to recall the memory. 

As an example, let’s say you’re learning how to knit. At first, when the synapses are weak, it might be challenging to remember exactly what you’re supposed to do. With practice, the synapses will get stronger, and you won’t have to work as hard to recall the steps.

It’s normal to experience some degree of memory loss as you mature. Around 40% of people aged 65 and older have age-associated memory impairment, while 10% have mild cognitive impairment. Why does this happen? 

As people age, some parts of the brain get smaller and function less effectively than they used to. For example, the frontal lobe and hippocampus are associated with cognitive function. When these areas shrink, it may become harder to absorb new information or recall memories

While cognitive decline is often a normal part of aging, medical and lifestyle factors can contribute to memory loss. These include: 

  • Head injuries, such as concussions
  • Mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression
  • Infections that impact the brain, such as tuberculosis
  • Blood clots
  • Alcohol, drug or tobacco use
  • Lack of sleep
  • Inadequate nutrient intake
  • Medication side effects
  • Traumatic life events or major changes

If you’re concerned about your memory loss, reach out to your doctor to determine the cause and discuss treatment options. 

The science behind exercise and brain health

We all know that exercise is good for our physical health, but what does it do for our mental health and cognitive function? Does exercise help with memory and brain health? In short, yes.

Research shows that regular exercise offers several advantages for your cognitive health, including sharpening your memory, improving your thinking skills, and reducing stress and anxiety. (We’ll take a closer look at these benefits later on.)

How exactly does exercise improve brain function? Physical activity triggers a couple of changes within your body, including blood vessel growth and better blood flow to your brain, which may slow cognitive decline, decrease your risk of dementia, and help you store long-term memories. It also reduces the number of stress receptors in your hippocampus, lessening the impact of stress hormones on your brain and helping you deal with stress. 

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On top of that, physical activity can increase your brain’s neuroplasticity, making it easier for you to learn new things. There’s even evidence that regular exercise can thicken your cerebral cortex and preserve the structural integrity of your brain’s white matter – both of which are associated with cognitive function

Research has also identified a link between exercise and neurogenesis, or the formation of new neurons in the brain, which is vital for learning and memory. One group of researchers described physical activity as a “non-pharmacological (and sometimes enjoyable) strategy to delay the effects of both physiological aging and pathological neurodegeneration on brain health.”

Benefits of exercise on memory and brain health

One of the main benefits of exercise for your memory and brain health is that it improves cognitive function and memory retention. One study found that inactive adults over the age of 45 were almost twice as likely to experience cognitive decline than active adults. Further research shows that following a moderate-intensity exercise routine can improve your memory and thinking skills in about six months.

There’s also a reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease among people who exercise regularly. In one analysis of multiple studies on the subject, researchers concluded that physical activity decreases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 45% and dementia by 28%. Even light physical activity – like grocery shopping or tidying up the house – can lower the likelihood of developing dementia. 

Exercise has multiple benefits for your mental health as well. For one, it’s been proven to ease anxiety and reduce your risk of depression. Both anxiety and depression can lead to memory problems, so if you have either condition, you could use exercise to help with your symptoms and potentially prevent memory loss. Other research has found that physical activity can help boost your mood and self-esteem.

Regularly engaging in physical activity also improves your sleep quality and may help manage certain sleep disorders, such as insomnia. Getting enough sleep is important for retaining new information and making memories. When you’re sleep-deprived, you may find it harder to concentrate, which can negatively affect your ability to create short-term and long-term memories.

Types of exercises that benefit memory and brain health

If you’re hoping to boost your brain health through physical activity, a few types of exercises can help. For starters, aerobic exercises (like running, swimming and cycling) play a role in “maintaining and enhancing central nervous system health and cognitive functioning in older adults,” according to a study of people between the ages of 60 and 79. 

Aerobic exercise has also been connected to improved cognitive performance in people with Parkinson’s disease. On top of that, elderly people with higher levels of aerobic fitness were shown to have larger hippocampal volume than less active individuals, which equates to enhanced memory function.

There’s also evidence about strength training’s impact on brain health, with research indicating that it can have long-term benefits in people with mild cognitive impairment. Plus, resistance training can boost cognitive and physical function in people with cognitive frailty (a combination of physical frailty and cognitive impairment). 

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Another recent study signaled that resistance training could be useful in treating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and helping manage the progression of the condition.

Even lower-intensity mind-body exercises can positively impact memory and brain health. For example, a study from 2023 found that older adults with mild cognitive impairment could improve their cognition (including working memory, attention, and executive function) by regularly practicing tai chi. 

Similarly, experts suggest that yoga might also boost brain health. In one study, yoga practice demonstrated a positive impact on several areas of the brain that are associated with age-related changes. In another study, yoga participants showed improvement in memory and depression. 

Incorporating exercise into your routine

By now, you know how much physical activity can enhance memory and brain health, so how do you get started with an exercise routine? The first step is finding a type of exercise that you enjoy so you’re more inclined to stick with it. For example, if you find motivation from working out with other people, ask a friend to join you for a walk or sign up for a group fitness class. If you’d rather exercise alone, you could hit the gym for a solo swim or weight-lifting session.

As you’re getting started, don’t push yourself too hard, especially if you’re new to exercise or returning from a long break. Over time, you can gradually build up your endurance and workout intensity.

Once you’ve figured out how you like to exercise, you can set goals. While it may be tempting to set one major goal (like losing 25 pounds, for example), it’s also smart to create smaller goals along the way. For instance, you might aim to increase your running distance by a certain amount each week. Achieving these mini-milestones can make you feel more accomplished and motivated.

If you find it hard to stick to a workout regimen, it may help to add your exercise sessions to your calendar like you would do for any other event or appointment. Logging your physical activity in a fitness tracker can be a good motivational tool as well.

When it comes to your health, exercise is just one piece of the puzzle. To feel your best, it’s important to follow a balanced diet that’s rich in whole, unprocessed foods. Taking a daily multivitamin can help, too. Getting enough sleep is also essential for better workout performance and overall well-being.

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