Harvard Health Letter

More evidence that exercise protects mobility

If you stay physically active in your older years, you're preserving your ability to keep moving. That's not just because you're exercising your heart and lungs and keeping your muscles and bones strong, but possibly also because you are warding off the effects of common age-related brain abnormalities called white matter hyperintensities (WMH)—small areas of damage in connections in the brain that are often related to long-term changes in the small blood vessels feeding the brain. High levels of WMH are associated with difficulty walking, but a study published in Neurology March 11, 2015, observed that older adults with WMH who were more physically active suffered less movement problems.

Researchers measured physical activity among 167 older adults with WMH. For the people who were the most active—in the top 10%—greater amounts of brain damage did not affect their scores on the movement tests. But for people who were half as active or less, more brain damage was associated with much lower scores on movement tests.

The study doesn't prove that being active protects you from the effects of brain damage. "But it adds to the evidence that if you are regularly physically active, your ability to walk will remain good, even if you accumulate vascular disease in your brain," says Dr. Gad Marshall, a neurologist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week.

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