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Exercise and Brain Health in the Aging Population

Studies have shown that exercise is good for us in so many ways. It keeps our bodies and our minds healthy and has even been shown to have a positive effect on our immune systems.

But just how much, and what type, of exercise will keep cognitive decline at bay in older adults?

study published on May 30, 2018, in the journal Neurology: Clinical Practice gives us some insight and answers beyond “exercise is good for your brain.” Joyce Gomes-Osman, a clinical neuroscientist at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and the lead author of the study, concluded that all types of exercise — aerobic, resistance (strength) training, mind-body exercises, or a combination of all three – have cognitive benefits for older adults. Walking, running, swimming, weight training, yoga and tai chi are all good ways to keep your brain young.

What’s particularly interesting about this study is it showed that what’s more important than the type of exercise you do is the amount of time spent doing it. Dr. Gomes-Osman reported that exercising for an average of 52 hours over a six-month period was linked to specific cognitive improvements in adults both with and without cognitive impairment. This exercise can be broken up into an hour here or there, but there is no set formula, as long as you reach that 52-hour goal.

Another interesting aspect of the study, which included the examination of previous studies on exercise and cognition as well, is that participant’s cognitive gains were found in specific areas of thinking that included planning and initiation of tasks, as well as processing speed and executive function (the ability to focus and manage tasks). Memory improvement was not as clear-cut, as it was only seen in around half of those analyzed.

So much about medicine is precise. We take specific doses of medications at particular times of the day, for a given amount of time. We have an exact number of physical therapy sessions, chemo treatments, and countless other medical interventions. But exercise recommendations for optimal brain health have always been vague. This is especially unfortunate as there are currently no medications available specifically for age-related cognitive decline. Exercise is all we have.

Instead of primary care doctors telling their older patients that they should exercise to keep their brains sharp, they can now “prescribe” something more specific, and possibly even work with their patients to develop an exercise plan. I think there is a greater possibility of success if someone is told exactly how much he or she needs to move in order to notice a difference in cognitive ability as opposed to just being told to exercise.

The results of this research are promising, and we are likely to see more studies on exercise and brain health, given the fact that our older population continues to grow. Perhaps one of the most important things to take away from this study is that older adults should find some type of exercise they enjoy and make it part of their every-day life. Just keep moving — and the physical and mental benefits will follow.

Exercise and Brain Health in the Aging Population

Janet Singer

Janet Singer’s son Dan suffered from OCD so severe that he could not even eat. After navigating through a disorienting maze of treatments and programs, Dan made a triumphant recovery. Janet has become an advocate for OCD awareness and wants everyone to know that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. There is so much hope for those with this disorder. Janet, who uses a pseudonym to protect her son’s privacy, is the author of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, published in January 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. Her own blog,, has reached readers in 167 countries. She is married with three children and resides in New England.

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APA Reference
Singer, J. (2018). Exercise and Brain Health in the Aging Population. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Jun 2018 (Originally: 18 Jun 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Jun 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.