Can Exercise Keep You Mentally Sharp?

Exercise helps both body and mind.

Exercise maintains your body by keeping it fit and strong. Physical activity also helps ward off serious conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But exercise doesn't just work wonders for your body. These effects apply to your brain, too. Physical activity sustains brain function and wards off declines in mental ability, too.

Experts say that exercise can help prevent mental decline as we age. Regular exercise may enhance memory and mood, and may improve our ability to juggle multiple mental tasks.

The aging brain
Severe memory loss or other serious mental impairments are most often caused by disease. But age-related mental declines may be the result of decreased brain activity and stimulation. Both mental and physical exercise can help keep your brain sharp.

Your brain with exercise
So how does physical activity boost brain power? It helps you:

  • Think more clearly. Getting your heart rate up pumps blood to the brain. This helps your brain perform better. Low-impact exercises like walking may be best for "clearing your head" because muscles don't work hard enough to use up extra oxygen and glucose.
  • Improve your memory. Experts say that exercise brings on the growth of nerve cells in the hippo campus, the region of your brain involved in memory. Studies show that seniors who walk regularly have better memories than inactive older adults. And the more you exercise, the better your memory gets.
  • Better your ability to do complex tasks. One study found that aerobic exercise helped people with mild cognitive problems to organize information, pay attention and multi-task better. This may be because exercise helps the body move glucose to the brain, which improves its function.
  • Possibly ward off Alzheimer's disease. There is growing research that suggests regular exercise is linked with a lower risk of Alzheimer's. Brain activity has been shown to increase with physical fitness. One study found that adults who exercised three times a week had a much lower chance of getting Alzheimer's than those who didn't.
  • Ease depression and anxiety. Exercise increases the level of serotonin (a chemical that affects mood) in the brain. Low levels of serotonin are linked with clinical depression. Some studies show that exercise can work just as well as medication in treating mild depression in some people.
  • Reduce stress. Physical activity helps lower the release of cortisol in your body. Cortisol is a hormone linked with stress.
  • Help keep your blood pressure in check. High blood pressure can harm blood vessels in your brain and reduce your brain's oxygen supply. This damages nerve cells that are used for decision-making and memory.

Time to get moving
Check with your doctor first before starting an exercise program. Then use these tips to get moving:

  • Pick an activity you enjoy. Try walking, swimming or playing tennis. You'll be more likely to stick with exercising if you enjoy doing it.
  • Start slowly. Work your way up to at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week.
  • Get a workout buddy. Exercise can help build friendships. It may be easier to stick to a fitness schedule if you have someone counting on you to show up.

Even if you've lived an inactive lifestyle up until now, regular activity will help keep your body - and brain - in shape.