Physical Activity: Keep Your Mind in Shape as You Age

There are many benefits to daily exercise, including improved cardiovascular ability and increased energy levels. But, can exercise also sharpen our minds?

The Effects of Aging on the Brain

Researchers have not yet conclusively determined the causes of 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.

Research on Exercise and the Mind

There are a number of studies that focus on the effects of physical activity on cognitive functioning in people 65 years and older.

For example, a review of 11 studies found that aerobic exercise in older people (those who didn’t have any cognitive problems) can improve some aspects of cognitive functioning.

In one large study involving over 18,000 women, researchers found that increased levels of physical activity was associated with a reduced risk of dementia.

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 are aware and in control.
  • To stay alert to your environment, do not wear a portable musical listening device.
  • 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 and your surroundings.

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


Angevaren M, Aufdemkampe G, Verhaar HJ, Aleman A, Vanhees L. Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008 Jul 16;(3):CD005381

Atkinson HH, Rosano C, Simonsick EM, et al. Cognitive function, gait speed decline, and comorbidities: the health, aging, and body composition study. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2007;62(8):844-50.

Knoefel JE, Jankowiak J. Can our leisure activities help to prevent cognitive decline? Neurology. 2006;66:E21-E22.

Rosano C, Simonsick EM, Harris TB, et al. Association between physical and cognitive function in healthy elderly: the health, aging, and body composition study. Neuroepidemiology. 2005;24(1-2):8-14.

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