Physical Activity: Keep Your Mind in Shape as You Age
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Physical Activity: Keep Your Mind in Shape as You Age

Walking image There are many benefits to daily exercise, including improved cardiovascular ability and increased energy levels. But can exercise also sharpen our minds? Research confirms that throwing on a pair of walking shoes can help when donning a thinking cap.

The Effects of Aging on the Brain

After the age of 65, at least 10% of people start to experience some type of intellectual decline, ranging anywhere from mild forgetfulness to dementia . This decline increases to 50% for those older than 85. Between 15%-25% of elderly people in the US suffer from significant symptoms of mental illness.

Researchers have not yet conclusively determined the causes of this cognitive deterioration. As a person ages, the brain seems to lose cells in areas that produce neurotransmitters. Also, changes take place in the white matter of the brain, where communication with other cells occurs.

Studying Exercise and the Mind

There are a number of studies regarding the effects of physical activity on cognitive functioning in the elderly. Researchers focusing on women have found that long-term regular physical activity (such as walking) is associated with significantly better cognitive functioning and less cognitive decline in women aged 70-81. Other researchers in a study focusing on men have found that participating in physical activities with at least a medium-low level of intensity may postpone cognitive decline. This study also determined that decreasing the duration or intensity of physical activity causes greater cognitive decline than maintaining the duration or intensity.

A group of researchers examined epidemiological literature, human intervention studies of exercise and its effects on brain functioning, and animal studies. This comprehensive analysis concluded that physical activity, especially at increased levels of intensity, is significantly related to higher cognitive function later in life, decreased risk of developing dementia, and maintenance of brain volume and plasticity (as compared to inactive elderly people).

Walk This Way

Walking is widely known to be beneficial for both the mind and the body. The following are some tips to walk safely:

  • Walk with confidence—show that you're aware and in control.
  • To stay alert to your environment, do not wear a portable musical listening device (eg, headphones with CD player or MP3 player).
  • When possible, avoid walking alone. Walk with a friend or in well-traveled areas.
  • Stay in well-lit areas, away from alleys or wooded areas.
  • Avoid shortcuts through parks, vacant lots, and other deserted places.
  • If a driver stops to ask you for directions, avoid getting near the car.
  • If you feel you are being followed, go to the nearest business or residence for help.
  • Above all, be aware of the people around you. Whenever you are walking, be aware of your surroundings.

Other ideas for moderate physical activity include going up and down stairs (as opposed to taking the elevator or escalator), gardening, doing housework, dancing, swimming, and water aerobics.

Other Ways To Stimulate Your Mind

Research has also found that cognitive leisure activities reduce the risk of cognitive decline. Playing board games, reading, doing crossword puzzles, carpentry, writing, and playing musical instruments help your brain stay sharp. Using your memory and imagination stimulates your mind and, like physical activity, may counterbalance the effects of aging.


American Association of Retired People

American Psychological Association


Atkinson HH, Rosano C, Simonsick EM, Williamson JD, Davis C, Ambrosius WT, et al, for the Health ABC Study. Cognitive function, gait speed decline, and comorbidities: the health, aging, and body composition study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci . 2007 Aug;62(8):844-50.

Knoefel JE, Jankowiak J. Can our leisure activities help to prevent cognitive decline? Neurology . 2006;66:E21-E22.Weuve J, et al. Physical activity, including walking, and cognitive function in older women. JAMA . 2004;292:1454-1461.

van Gelder BM, Tijhuis AR, Kalmijn S, Giampaoli S, Nissinen A, Kromhout D. Physical activity in relation to cognitive decline in elderly men—the FINE Study. Neurology . 2004;63:2316-2321.

Rosano C, Simonsick EM, Harris TB, Kritchevsky SB, Brach J, Visser M, et al, for the Health ABC Study. Association between physical and cognitive function in healthy elderly: the health, aging, and body composition study. Neuroepidemiology . 2005;24(1-2):8-14.

Last reviewed October 2007 by Marcin Chwistek, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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