Research has long proven that regular exercise does a brain good as much as the body. Breaking a sweat helps reduce insulin resistance and inflammation while simultaneously promoting and protecting brain cell growth. New scientific evidence, however, suggests that not just any workout helps fight against cognitive decline. You’ve got to really work it to see the best results as you age.
A study published in Neurology earlier this year examined a pool of 876 people in their late 60s or early 70s across a five-year span. Of that group, 90% reported doing light exercise — they walked or did yoga if they did anything at all. The other 10% engaged in more intense training, like running or calisthenics. Everyone underwent a standard battery of brain tests, which looked at things like how quickly they could perform simple tasks or how many words they could remember from a list.
None of the subjects showed signs of thinking or memory issues at the start. But when they all tested again five years later, researchers found that the moderate-to-intense exercisers did significantly better than their less-active peers. How much better? The study authors equated the difference to 10 years of aging. The people who trained harder performed better on cognitive tests, as if they were younger.
“Our study showed that for older people, getting regular exercise may be protective, helping them keep their cognitive abilities longer,” said Dr. Clinton B. Wright, MS, the author of the study and newly appointed director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Office of Clinical Research.
So kicking up the intensity of your workouts two to three times per week may help keep your gray matter in great shape, too. Here’s what else you can do to keep your brain acting young as the years go by.
Go fish. Findings published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine show that eating fish once per week was positively associated with larger brain volumes. Note that preparation matters: Fried fish didn’t deliver the same level of benefits as baked or broiled. Another Neurology study found that higher concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids (a nutrient supplied by fish, among other foods) in the blood was associated with higher brain volumes and better cognitive function in elderly adults.
Meet with friends daily. A team of researchers conducted a series of studies of people of various age groups and found a positive relationship between social contact and cognitive function. One of their studies showed that as little as 10 minutes of social interaction a day made a beneficial difference.
Catch your zzz’s. The National Institutes of Health reports that sleep helps flush toxins out of the brain, which they say has “significant implications” for its role in helping combat diseases like Alzheimer’s. Sleep is also the time when your brain encodes memories, which may help explain why a lack of sleep can impair one’s ability to reason or pay attention to detail.
Enjoy the great outdoors. You know that more intense exercise can help keep the brain young. But other researchers have found that taking a walk through a park or the woods reduced rumination (aka overthinking), a known risk factor for mental illness. The strolls also reduced activity in areas of the brain associated with mental illness.
Remember that it’s never too late to start. A study out of the University of British Columbia found that when a group of about 35 people (with an average age of 74) already dealing with cognitive impairments took up a three-day-per-week exercise program, they scored better on tests of their thinking skills after six months.