A study led by the University of Georgia has found that physical activity during older age can help protect cognitive functioning. Moreover, in order to see significant improvements in brain health, no intense physical exercise is needed. In fact, even just a few minutes of walking could have high neuroprotective benefits.
“This finding isn’t saying, ‘If you’re older, you need to go out there and start running marathons,’” said study lead author Marissa Gogniat, a recent doctoral graduate in Psychology at the University of Georgia. “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.”
Dr. Gogniat and her colleagues tracked the physical activity and fitness measurements of 51 older adults, who wore a device that measured the intensity of their physical activity, the number of steps taken, and the distance they covered. The scientists assessed fitness through a six-minutes walking test, during which participants had to walk as quickly as they could. Afterwards, the participants performed tests specifically designed to measure their cognitive functioning and underwent functional MRIs to assess their brain functioning.
The researchers found that the functioning and interaction of the different neural networks that the brain consists of – which is fundamental for being able to perform basic daily tasks, such as remembering important information and exhibiting self-control – was significantly improved by physical exercise.
“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,” Dr. Gogniat explained.
“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.”
“We’ve always been told it’s good to exercise, but I think this is some evidence that exercise can actually change your brain. And that impacts the way you’re able to function in your daily life,” she concluded.
The study is published in the journal Sport Sciences for Health.
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