The importance of regular exercise to support physical health is no secret. From aerobic exercise to help support heart health and blood flow, to strength training that can support posture and endurance, it’s hard to argue against regular physical activity.
However, the benefits of exercise aren’t limited to muscle tone and physique. Physical exercise also has immense benefits for brain function and mental health – especially when brain aging is part of the equation.
Staying physically active as you age can help you live a longer, more rewarding life, as both high and low intensity exercise alike offer benefits for cognitive performance, mental wellness, and brain health.
Let’s take a look at a few positive effects of exercise that can support cognitive function, then go over some easy exercises for any activity level.
How Does Exercise Help an Aging Brain?
Engaging in physical activity has loads of benefits for mental wellbeing and brain health, regardless of your age. Here are our favorite benefits!
Having trouble remembering where you left your car keys? Missing appointments or forgetting friends’ birthdays? Changes in recall and memory are just one of many natural effects of aging, but exercise might be a way to keep your memory sharper for longer.
Exercise is able to increase molecular targets such as BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor. This increases something called synaptogenesis, which is the formation of new synapses (aka brain connections) that help mediate learning and memory.
Essentially, this helps to make it easier for those parts of your brain, especially one part called the parietal cortex, to absorb information and form long-term memories.
Exercising fosters more widely available BDNF, which can offer cognitive benefits for the parts of your brain responsible for memory function, both in forming memories as well as remembering them.
Lowers Stress Impact
Stress is a natural part of life, but as you get older, your body has a slightly tougher time coping with that stress. Virtually any form of exercise, from HIIT to yoga to taking a walk at lunch, can have major benefits for helping with stress reduction.
Exercise pumps up your endorphins, which are your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins naturally make you feel really great since they work to relieve pain and boost mood, and they’re why working out feels satisfying and can put some pep in your step through the rest of the day.
Exercise also works to imitate the effects of stress, raising heart rate and even simulating your fight or flight response. This can help your body “practice” working through the effects of stress so you’re better equipped to deal with real stress when it does happen. This has positive effects on your body overall, and it can even promote proper digestive and immune system health, which can face imbalance when your body holds onto stress for too long.
Finally, exercise can enhance confidence and self-esteem in general. Even in older adults who aren’t necessarily looking to bulk up or boost endurance, exercise can still promote strength and endurance to make it easier to complete activities of daily living.
Exercise can also drive better outcomes in terms of cognition, which can help older people retain skills within problem-solving and logical reasoning even as their brains age and neuro-plasticity (which is basically the brain’s ability to adapt) naturally decreases.
A study from the University of San Francisco found that when older individuals stay physically active, certain proteins that enhance connections between neurons are more abundant in the brain. Higher levels of these proteins were found to facilitate better exchange of information between neurons. These benefits were found in multiple regions of the brain, even beyond the hippocampus where a lot of the heavy lifting is done, supporting and regulating healthy functioning in multiple ways.
Even moreso, this synaptic integrity might even be able to safeguard brains from the risk of dementia. Dementia is a general loss of memory and cognition that can happen for a number of reasons involving degradation of the brain.
However, neurotoxicity associated with Alzheimer’s disease (one of the most prevalent neurodegenerative diseases without a cure) was found to be lower in those who exercise often.
In other words, physical activity might be able to help protect older individuals from at least some of the risk factors that may contribute to dementia.
Insomnia, delayed sleep onset, and other sleep disturbances are common with age, and a lot of this can be related back to cognitive decline, high stress levels, or chronic pain. Sleep is a critical time for the brain, serving as the main chance your brain gets to rest, recharge, and repair, as well as organize and store all the information you’ve learned through the day.
Thankfully, regularly getting in some moderate to vigorous exercise can help increase sleep quality by reducing sleep onset (which is the amount of time it takes to fall asleep).
You can also see some indirect sleep benefits as welcome side effects of physical activity. Preventing excessive weight gain can make someone less likely to experience sleep apnea, and since 60% of sleep apnea cases are attributed to obesity, this is a major benefit.
Easy Exercises To Support an Aging Brain
You don’t need to go on 5-mile runs or do a ton of deadlifts to experience the benefits of exercise. At any age, there are plenty of easy ways to stay active at any skill level.
What’s just as important is the amount of time you spend working out each week. You’ll want to try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate cardio, or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio, every single week. (But of course, greater amounts of exercise will provide even greater benefits.)
With that said, it’s okay to start slowly — starting slow is especially recommended if you’re just getting into regular exercise for the first time or after a hiatus.
Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Swimming is one of the best exercises for older adults because it is low impact and easy to pick up. In fact, swimming can burn 250 calories in just 30 minutes while also working muscles throughout the entire body.
Not to mention, you can conduct other types of exercises in the pool to help build up strength to do them out of the pool. You can do resistance training while in the water, and since the buoyancy makes the weights just a bit lighter, you can practice here before making your way to the non-aquatic part of your gym.
Activities like water aerobics are another great activity that you can do in the pool to get your body moving without the high intensity impact of similar aerobic dance classes.
Strength training beneficial not only for your brain strength, but also for physical strength. When it comes to strength training, remember that you don’t need to use heavy weights in order to see results.
Exercises like glute bridges, planks, or knee push-ups are all great exercises that you can do without any equipment.
As long as weight training doesn’t cause pain or discomfort, you can use dumbbells or resistance bands to help maintain muscular strength and endurance. For muscular strength, be sure to choose heavy weights and complete 8-12 reps. For muscular endurance, you’ll want to go lighter on the weights but complete 15-20 reps.
One of the best workouts for your brain health and overall health is also one of the simplest, and you already do it every single day! Walking is a fantastic exercise that helps to keep joints loose while also burning calories.
Not to mention, it’s also a low-impact alternative to higher intensity cardiorespiratory fitness activities like running. You can also increase your speed over time and start to burn even more calories while totaling the same distance.
Plus, walking is a social activity that you can do with friends. Going on hikes or exploring easy trails with friends can boost your mood in even more ways than just the exercise itself.
In ConclusionExercise can have some amazing benefits for both your brain and your overall health and wellbeing. It can reduce stress, enhance your mood, and even improve memory and cognition. Plus, as you age, you can still feel these benefits with simple exercises like swimming and walking.
But what’s just as important as exercise is proper nutrition, and it’s important that you’re fueling up after your workouts in order to stimulate progress and maintain muscle growth. The right ingredients can even work to support your brain health just as well as the exercising, itself!
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Block out your calendar to make some time for regular exercise, then consider giving our trial pack a try to get a little taste of everything. It’s really a no-brainer!
How exercise affects the brain | BYU College of Life Sciences.
Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress | The Mayo Clinic
Exercise Alters Brain Chemistry to Protect Aging Synapses | UC San Francisco
How Can Exercise Affect Sleep? | Sleep Foundation.
Best swimming stroke for weight loss | Swimming.org.