Getting closer to understanding how exercise keeps brains young

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Most of us have had firsthand experience with memory lapses. We find ourselves flustered trying to recall a name during a conversation. We forget where we parked the car. We can’t recall items on the short grocery list we left back at home.

While memory lapses can occur at any age, they happen more often as we get older.  And there is that fear they’re early signs of Alzheimer’s disease or some other type of dementia. But for the most part, our fleeting memory difficulties are from normal age-related changes in the brain. Our recall slows and it’s a bit harder to learn new things quickly.

Many studies have shown that staying physically active and exercising regularly in middle age and beyond can help delay and perhaps even prevent decline in brain function. Since most of these studies have been primarily observational, they can’t show associations and don’t prove cause and effect.

So there is no scientific proof that exercise itself is the direct reason for staying mentally sharp. At least not yet.

New studies suggest how exercise helps the brain

More recent studies show positive brain changes related to greater amounts of daily physical activity and higher fitness levels.

Last month, a small but interesting study looked at oxygen related changes and nerve processing in the brain. These features have been shown to correlate with better memory and brain function as people age.

The researchers identified 100 relatively healthy men and women ages 60 to 80 with varying levels of reported physical activity. For one week, the study participants wore an accelerometer to measure their amount of physical activity. Each of them also had their oxygen consumption measured during a maximal exercise test. Oxygen consumption during peak exercise is a standard way to assess cardiorespiratory fitness.

As expected, the people with higher fitness levels were the same ones that were more physically active during the week. They were also the same people who showed more positive oxygen related changes and MRI findings consistent with faster nerve processing in the brain. The study results were reported in PLOS One.

Does greater exercise time and intensity matter?

We don’t have an exact exercise prescription to guide how long and hard we should exercise. Based on the results of this study and many others, even low intensity activity for an hour a day appears to be much better for brain health than sitting on the couch.

You don’t have to engage in high-performance athletics to preserve and protect your brain. Just be more active during the day:

  • Get up and move around every hour while awake
  • Walk more, use the car less
  • Take the stairs rather than the elevator
  • Do gardening or yard work

More ways to help your brain stay young

Staying physically active with time scheduled daily for dedicated exercise is just one way path to better brain function. Here’s what else you can do:

  • Get enough sleep
  • Find out if any of your medications cause memory problems
  • Don’t smoke
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Reduce stress
  • Treat high blood pressure


  1. Virginia Wiseman

    Meditating on scripture will keep one’s mind sharp and clear. It has been proven effective for people of all ages, from children getting better grades in school, to the elderly in their wisdom… Meditating on God’s Word is more than reading it, one must read, reread, chew on it, think on it, put you self into it and ask God to show you through His Word how you are to use it to serve others and to glorify His name. This one I meditate daily, “God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power, of love and a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7) It pleases God when we think on things beautiful, full of honor, virtue and praise. He said, “think on these things”. (Phil 4:8). Staying positive shows faith, rather than dwelling on negative messages that Satan gives. Speak kind, loving words and edify and encourage those whom God has in your life each and every day… Expect Him to always care for you and to keep your mind and guard your heart when we present our bodies to Him as a living sacrifice, no longer conformed to the world. ( Romans 12:1). God is faithful to protect and keep you as His own…


    I get out and walk on my morning break. It really does make me more productive & happier!


    it’s interesting

  4. Amber

    So,athletes must be more intelligent than normal people?

  5. abdul ghafoor

    exercise as close to one another is beneficial for healthy brains.

  6. sekolah di summarecon bekasi

    some times the medicine is not enough for treatment at this many times the exercise is can be show the effective result and many kinds of excessive are make or keeps our brain young and this article is about is so if we are take this kind of exercise we are have a young brain for all time . GOOD

  7. Nancy Dueker

    I can tell that I have a stronger, easier all around functioning when I am exercising regularly.

  8. Dr. Enrque Vidal P.

    Exercise is the best medicine for the brain. Moderately and made aware of its benefits, and combined with the practice of yoga or tai chi for example, disease and keeps away the synaptic and cognitive ability in tune with the needs and circumstances we face in everyday life.
    Congratulations to Harvard health and Dr. Howard Lewine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Internet publications, Harvard Health Publishing, the disclosure.

  9. Amy

    Exercise is one the most safest way to keep fit. We can prevent diseases from happening if we stay healthy. A regular oxygen intake to our bloodstreams can make our brain younger, because we release the toxic wastes from our body and keep a normal blood circulation that helps regulates unwanted fats and cholesterol. I like your post it’s very helpful. Keep up the good work.

    Amy Kramerr, Author and E Cigarettes Reviews blogger


    some times the medicine is not enough for treatment at this many times the exercise is can be show the effective result and many kinds of excessive are make or keeps our brain young and this article is about is so if we are take this kind of exercise we are have a young brain for all time .
    nice post

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