The Cognitive Benefits of Physical Fitness

By Krista DeHaai, Life Enrichment Program Coordinator, Carriage Crossing Senior Living

We know that exercise is helpful for our physical well-being, helping tone our muscles, keeping our heart and lungs healthy, and managing our weight. However, some may be surprised to know that there has also been a significant amount of research done that links physical exercise to our brain’s processing, memory, attention, and executive functions (the brain’s ability to organize our thoughts and regulate our actions). 

Increased physical activity has been associated with decreasing the possibility for diabetes, heart disease, and depression. These diseases can harm the brain, reducing cognitive function. In recent years there have been a multitude of studies being done attempting to link cognitive improvements to help reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The results have been promising; however, there is still further research to be done. 

If you are looking to help increase your cognition through an exercise program, studies have linked several important factors that will help you to do this. One of the most important components of exercise and increased cognition is longevity—are you determined to stay committed for the long term? Research has shown that exercise shows the most beneficial impact to boost the brain function if one is able to exercise consistently over an extended period. This means sticking with exercise for a period of months and even years and performing activities several times each week. One study showed that it would take at least 6-12 months to see positive cognitive changes. A good way to help you to maintain this goal is to find activities that you enjoy doing. For instance, if you join a water exercise class but dread going to the class, you will most likely not continue to perform this exercise. 

Another method to help you maintain fitness is to create smaller, reachable goals. This is especially important if you have been inactive or sedentary and are choosing to begin physical activity. Think long-term and not pushing yourself so hard that you hurt yourself or burn out quickly and then give up entirely. How can you enjoy this activity thus allowing you to have more probability to still be doing it one or two or even ten years from now? 

Certain studies on exercise and the promotion of cognitive ability have made recommendations for the approximate number of hours that an individual should exercise. One of the more recent studies on cognitive health and exercise published in Neurology Clinical Practice found that exercising weekly for a cumulative amount of about 52 hours over 6 months will provide you with the most optimal benefits to help your brain function better. This is about 20 minutes per day which is in line with other studies that on average have recommended about 140-150 minutes of exercise/week. This particular study saw benefits in planning and initiating tasks, processing speed, and executive function when the participants did the recommended amount of time. 

There is also research indicating that the actual number or variation of physical activities performed can also assist in memory and overall cognitive function. This means that an individual who mixes up different forms of physical exercise and engages in multiple activities throughout a week may reap greater benefits cognitively than an individual who concentrates on only one type of exercise. Aerobic and strength exercising have been shown to be more beneficial cognitively than light stretching. Aerobic exercise has been shown to Increase blood supply in the brain which can help nerve growth and function in the brain. Increased aerobic fitness in some studies has also been correlated to decreasing or minimizing age-related cognitive impairment. Studies done with elderly participants who have undergone a weight training program have shown indications of improved short-term memory.  

In addition, other studies show that exercise which forces your brain to engage in different ways or to learn a new pattern or routine can increase brain volume and help with memory. Dancing, Tai Chi, or other Martial Arts that teach steps or patterns have been linked in studies to combating memory decline. In addition, our brains are more challenged when we go out of our comfort zones to learn something new.

Recently, there have been numerous studies supporting evidence that exercise can benefit our brain function and possibly decrease cognitive decay in aging adults. If we are to follow the outcomes of these studies, one optimal program would be to focus on the long-term, attempt to exercise 20 minutes per day with a variation of exercise activities including strength and aerobic exercises that could include an exercise that teaches your brain something new such as Tai Chi or new dance steps. Keep in mind that individuals who find activities that they enjoy are more likely to make exercise a part of their daily routine over the long-term. 

Carriage Crossing Senior Living in Bloomington proudly offers exceptional care to older adults at their state-of-the-art community located at 1402 Leslie Drive in Bloomington. They offer Independent/Assisted Living and Memory Care. “Live the Life You Love” while having the support, engagemen,t and compassion to continue a lifestyle with just a change of location. For additional information or to schedule a tour, please call Jackie Pope-Ganser, Community Relations Director, at 309-603-2500 or visit


For more informative and inspirational articles, visit 50 Plus News and Views Bloomington Normal online issue.

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