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Physical Activity: Keep Your Mind in Shape as You Age

Walking image 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 50 years and older.

For example, a review of 11 studies found that aerobic exercise in people 55 years and older without cognitive problems can improve some aspects of cognitive functioning. The results showed improvement in motor function, cognitive speed, and auditory and visual attention.

In one large study involving over 18,000 women, researchers found that long-term, increased levels of physical activity was associated with a reduced risk of cognitive decline. The women, aged 70-81 years, were followed for a two year period.

In a study of older men, it was found that participating in activities even of low or moderate intensity still have benefits. However, men who started doing less physical activity had a faster decline in cognitive function.

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.
  • Face traffic when you walk on the road.
  • Wear proper clothing so you can be spotted by drivers, especially when it is dark.
  • Carry your ID in case you need it during medical emergencies.
  • To stay alert to your environment. Do not wear a portable musical listening device and be aware of the people around you.
  • When possible, avoid walking alone. Walk with a friend or in well-traveled areas.
  • Change your route on a random basis and walk at different times during the day.

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.

  • Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

    http://www.ahrq.gov

  • American Association of Retired People

    http://www.aarp.org

  • Canadian Association of Family Physicians

    http://www.cfpc.ca

  • Health Canada

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/index%5Fe.html

  • 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.

  • Mild cognitive impairment. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed/what.php. Updated January 28, 2013. Accessed January 30, 2013.

  • 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.

  • van Gelder BM, Tijhuis AR, Kalmijn S, Giampaoli S, Nissinen A, Kromhout D. Physical activity in relation to cognitive decline in elderly men—the FINE Study. Neurology. 2004;63:2316-2321.

  • Walking safety. Runners World website. Available at: http://www.runnersworld.com/beginners/walking-safety. Added May 2, 2002. Accessed January 30, 2013.

  • Weuve J, et al. Physical activity, including walking, and cognitive function in older women. JAMA. 2004;292:1454-1461.