How and why physical activity is good medicine for the brain

Excerpt: Regular physical activity helps to prevent chronic disease and promote brain health in older adults in multiple ways. Studies show that moderate-intensity aerobic exercise boosts episodic and short-memory, lifts mood, sharpens thinking, and improves decision-making. Engaging in various kinds of physical activity, including yoga and tai chi, also helps to ease stress and anxiety, increase deep sleep and sleep duration, and relieve chronic pain.


The World Health Organization reported that physical activity tops the list of lifestyle interventions to prevent dementia and slow cognitive decline.* Studies suggest regular exercise of moderate intensity offers brain health benefits that may be even greater than from valuable lifestyle components, such as good nutrition, cognitive stimulation, and social activity.*

Neuroscience research shows that physical activity helps to prevent disease and enhance brain health by improving the structure, function, and connectivity of your brain.* For example, the physiological benefits of exercise include increased white matter connections that act as communication lines between various regions of the brain, which can be seen in MRI scans.*

Thus, physical activity truly is a potent form of medicine that promotes brain health and fitness in some of the following ways:

  1. Boosts memory. A 2022 Communications Medicine study found older adults who exercised 3 times a week improved episodic memory,* which deals with events that happened in the past. Older adults who did a morning session of aerobic exercise and frequent 3-minute walking breaks to interrupt prolonged sitting boosted their short-term memory,* reported a British Journal of Sports Medicine study.
  2. Lifts mood and reduces depression. Older adults who practiced tai chi for 12 weeks significantly reduced depression symptoms,* according to McMaster University. Exercise helps ease depression by releasing feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins and interrupting the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression,* advises Mayo Clinic.
  3. Sharpens thinking. A University of Calgary study, published in Neurology, found that sedentary older adults who exercised 3 times a week for 6 months showed improvement in thinking skills equivalent to being 6 years younger than their chronological age and significant increases in cerebral blood flow.*
  4. Improves reasoning and decision-making. A Western University study found older adults who engaged in short bursts of moderate aerobic exercise—as brief as 10 minutes—improved their decision-making and problem-solving.* Older adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), who rode a stationary bike while playing a cognitively stimulating virtual reality game, improved multi-tasking and decision-making more than those who pedaled with no gaming component.* This suggests the enhanced benefits of combining exercise and mental stimulation in dancing, for example.*
  5. Eases stress and anxiety. A JAMA Psychiatry study reported yoga was significantly more effective for treating anxiety than standard education on stress management.* Yoga helps to ease stress and anxiety through physical postures and by teaching participants how to control breathing, relax the body and quiet the mind.*
  6. Alters and improves pain perception. Older women with fibromyalgia who did eight weeks of low-intensity aerobic and resistance exercises reported reduced pain symptoms and improved quality of life,* according to an International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study.
  7. Enhances sleep quality and increases deep sleep. Moderate aerobic exercise, such as walking, helps people to fall asleep more quickly and increases slow wave sleep, also known as deep sleep,* advises Johns Hopkins Medicine. People who do 30 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise may enjoy better sleep the very first night.*

Chartwell retirement communities offer a number of intellectual and fitness programming to help engage the mind and body, including their FitMinds® and Rhythm ‘n’ Moves classes. To learn more, click here.

*The following sources provide references for this blog, in order of appearance:

  1. Cognitive Vitality. “Seven lifestyle interventions evaluated by the WHO for preventing cognitive decline and dementia.” (2019), online: https://www.alzdiscovery.org/cognitive-vitality/blog/seven-lifestyle-interventions-evaluated-by-who-prevent-cognitive-decline
  2. World Health Organization. “Risk reduction of cognitive decline and dementia: WHO guidelines.” (2019), online: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241550543
  3. Psychology Today. “Why is physical activity so good for your brain?” (2014), online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/the-athletes-way/201409/why-is-physical-activity-so-good-your-brain
  4. Science Daily. “Exercise can help older adults retain their memories.” (2022), online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/02/220217090610.htm
  5. Science Daily. “Morning exercise can improve decision-making across the day in older adults.” (2019), online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190429154529.htm
  6. McMaster University. “Tai chi appears to significantly reduce depressive symptoms in older adults.” (2013, online: https://www.mcmasteroptimalaging.org/full-article/es/tai-chi-appears-significantly-reduce-depressive-symptoms-older-adults-40
  7. Mayo Clinic. “Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms.” (2017), online: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495
  8. University of Calgary. “How aerobic exercise helps us keep our wit about us as we age.” (2020), online: https://www.ucalgary.ca/news/how-aerobic-exercise-helps-us-keep-our-wits-about-us-we-age
  9. Western University. “All exercise intensities benefit older brains.” (2019), online: https://news.westernu.ca/2019/02/exercise-intensities-benefit-older-brains/
  10. Science Daily “Move it and use it: Exergaming may help those at risk for Alzheimer’s or related dementias. (2018), online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/05/180515081728.htm
  11. Science Daily. “Yoga shown to improve anxiety, study show.” (2020), online: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200812144124.htm
  12. Mayo Clinic. “Yoga: fight stress and find serenity.” (2020), online: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/yoga/art-20044733
  13. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “Low-intensity physical exercise improves pain catastrophizing and other psychological and physical aspects in women with Fibromyalgia: a randomized controlled trial.” (2020), online: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/10/3634
  14. Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Exercising for better sleep.” (2022), online: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/exercising-for-better-sleep