We know that exercise is good for the body and the brain. But actually being physically active, at least on a regular basis, isn’t always easy.
For days when you just don’t want to break a sweat, there’s new motivation in the form of scientific evidence: physical activity can slow brain aging by as much as 10 years, reports a new study published in the journal Neurology.
It’s among the first studies to actually put a number on how beneficial exercise can be for the brain. The researchers asked a group of 1,228 men and women of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds living in Manhattan about their regular exercise habits. They also answered questions that tested their cognitive abilities, including their memory, organization, reasoning and thinking speed. Five years later, they performed the same tests on about half of the study group.
People who reported doing more physical activity showed higher scores on cognitive tests—consistent with previous studies linking more exercise to better brain health. But when the researchers adjusted for the effect that factors like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease can have on brain function, the link disappeared. Conditions like these could impair blood flow to the brain and therefore compromise cognitive functions, says Dr. Clinton Wright, associate professor of neurology and public health sciences at University of Miami and senior author of the study. “That suggests that people with low physical activity levels also had a greater burden of those risk factors,” he says.