Physical Activity Boosts Brain Health

A woman holding flowers to plant.

Regular physical activity is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. Not only is it good for your muscles and bones, it can keep your brain healthy, too.

Physical activity can improve your cognitive health—helping you think, learn, problem-solve, and enjoy an emotional balance. It can improve memory and reduce anxiety or depression. But you don’t have to be a fitness guru to reap the benefits. Any amount of physical activity can help. No matter your age or fitness level, physical activity can help improve sleep, brain health, and quality of life.

Regular physical activity can also reduce your risk of cognitive decline, including dementia. One studyexternal icon found that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those who are active.

Most adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity  physical activity weekly. This can be broken into 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. In addition to improving brain health, following these recommendations for physical activity can help you sleep and feel better, lose weight, reduce your risk of 20 chronic health conditions including heart disease and some cancers, and add years to your life.

What You Can Do

Healthy older adults can have cognitive decline. Learn about the important health benefits of physical activity for healthy aging.

Being active is easier than you may think. It doesn’t have to happen in one stretch. You can break up your activity across the week, and some activity is better than none. Here are four activities you can add to your daily routine to help become a healthier you:

  1. Dance.
    Turn up the music at home and dance. Twisting and turning will burn calories without even feeling like exercise.
  2. Be physically active while watching TV.
    Look for ways to reduce sedentary time and increase active time. For example, keep a list of quick activities, like squats or marching in place, near the remote so that you can be active during commercial breaks.
  3. Add physical activity into your daily routine.
    Walking is a good way to start being active. When shopping for essential items, increase your activity by parking at the back of the parking lot and walking to the shop. Use the stairs instead of the elevator or get off transit one stop sooner.
  4. Walk the dog.
    Dogs are great walking companions and can help you have an active lifestyle. One studyexternal icon found that dog owners on average walk 22 minutes more every day compared to people who don’t own a dog.

Some of the benefits of physical activity on brain health start right after a session of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Every little bit counts. Even some chores such as light yard work (raking and bagging leaves or using a lawn mower) and gardening can help you get active. Learn more about Making Physical Activity a Part of an Older Adult’s Life.

Still think it’s too hard to be more active? Keep track of your daily activities for 1 week; this simple diary pdf icon[PDF-571KB] might help. Think about any times throughout the day you could use to be physically active and make those times a regular part of your daily or weekly schedule. Find more tips to fit physical activity into your day with Move Your Way pdf icon[PDF-1.08MB]external icon.

Health Care Providers Can Help Too

Health care providers play an important role in helping patients become more physically active to improve their health. They can:

  • Educate patients about the connection between physical activity and physical and mental health.
  • Encourage patients to move more and sit less to meet the physical activity guidelinesexternal icon. When adults with cognitive decline are not able to meet the physical activity guidelines, encourage them to do whatever regular physical activity they can and avoid inactivity. For example, patients with cognitive decline and their caregivers may take “buddy” walks in a park, their neighborhood, or a shopping mall.
  • Prescribe programs such as SilverSneakersexternal icon, EnhanceFitnessexternal icon, and Fit and Strongexternal icon that may be helpful in reducing barriers for older adults who are more likely to have cognitive decline and less likely to be active.
  • Connect patients to physical activity resources.
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