Physical Activity And The Brain


Let’s be honest: starting a new fitness program, and then sticking with it, is difficult. It’s why so many new year’s resolutions are often faint memories by February 1.

For older adults though, it becomes even more imperative to commit to a fitness regimen. There’s the obvious physical benefits that come with exercise – from improving strength and balance, to critically, helping reduce falls.

But there’s an added level of importance: physical fitness can have a direct correlation to cognitive health as we age. So it’s not just biceps and quads that you’re working out, but your brain as well.

In 2022, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh tracked the physical activity of 1,800 adults over the age of 65, and found that those who stuck with a consistent fitness regimen performed better on cognitive tests than those who didn’t.

“There’s something about getting going early, staying active all day and following the same routine each day that seems to be protecting older adults,” said lead author Stephen Smagula, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Pitt. “What’s exciting about these findings is that activity patterns are under voluntary control, which means that making intentional changes to one’s daily routine could improve health and wellness.”

The study mentions that the correlation extends to the duration of activity during the day – those who rose at an earlier, more consistent time each day and stayed active throughout the day had better results than those who would sleep in and then go to bed earlier, the latter showing “…more depression symptoms and poorer cognition than the early risers.”

Sleep patterns have a tangible effect on cognitive health, and waking up at around the same time every day is recommended by experts.

As far as duration of exercise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of fitness activities per week for older adults, which essentially breaks down to 30 minutes a day, five days a week. From there, if you can do more within your boundaries, the better. But it’s important to consult with a physician about starting or extending a fitness program.

Mental Health Benefits

We noted The University of Pittsburgh study mentioning the impact of exercise on mental health, and that aspect goes hand-in-hand with the cognitive outcomes.

Regular exercise is well known to release endorphins and serotonin into the brain that lead to happiness and positive feelings, as well giving a feeling of calmness and relaxation.

In addition, many older adults perform their fitness regimens with a partner or in groups, and the social element can have a big impact on mental health. From finding connection with a friend during a brisk walk, to joining a group fitness class or enrolling in a pickleball or bocce league, doubling the fitness portion with a social element can have a significant impact on mental health.