Physical Activity: Keep Your Mind in Shape as You Age

Walking image We know that exercise can be good for the heart and joints, but fewer know it helps the brain as well.

Aging on the Brain

The way we plan, make decisions, organize, and remember can change as we age. It can cause issues from mild memory problems to loss of focus. They are caused by physical changes in the brain. This may include shrinking in parts of the brain, change in blood flow, or slow down of brain cells. It is not clear why some are more effected than others.

Age also increases the risk of illnesses such as strokes or Alzheimers.

Role of Exercise

We do know that exercise is good for the brain. All of the reasons may not be clear but some ways that exercise may help include:

  • Improve blood flow to the brain
  • Lower the risk of stroke
  • Decrease stress
  • Challenge brain through learning new skills
  • Improve health of heart and blood vessels which create blood flow to the brain
  • Improve thought process in those at high risk of Alzheimers

The good news is that exercise can have benefit no matter when you start. The earlier you start, the better the benefits will be.

Choosing Activity

There are many exercise choices. The best is one that you will stick to. Look for choices that match your interest and resources. Do not be afraid to try someting new. Examples include:

  • Walking, jogging, or running
  • Water aerobics
  • Group exercise classes
  • Tennis or golf (without golf cart)
  • Hiking

Ask friends to go with you. A new activity can also be a good way to meet new people. Friends can provide motivation.

Aerobic exercise is anything that gets your heart rate up. Examples are walking, cycling, or dance class. Studies have shown that this type of exercise is helpful for brain health. The goal is to do this type of exercise most days of the week.

Strength training can be done with weights, machines, or bodyweight. There is less research on its benefits on the brain. Some studies have shown it is helpful too. Aim for strength training 2 to 3 days per week.

The most helpful program will have aerobic, strength training, and stretching. Start slowly and add activity as you feel able. Look for tools to help you create a program. There are many online or community programs that offer free help. A gyms will often help their members get started as well. The key is to just get moving!


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality


The College of Family Physicians of Canada


Angevaren M, Aufdemkampe G, et al. Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;3:CD005381
How the Aging Brain Affects Thinking. National Institue on Aging website. Available at: Reviewed May 17, 2017. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Mild cognitive impairment (MCI). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated May 14, 2020. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Participating in Activities You Enjoy. National Institue on Aging website. Available at: Reviewed October 23, 2017. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Weight training may boost brain power. Harvard Health Watch website. Available at: training may boost brain,often a precursor to dementia. Created January 2017. Accessed June 8, 2020.
Last reviewed June 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/8/2020

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