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5 Exercise Programs That Promote Brain Health

5 Exercise Programs That Promote Brain Health

Reading Time: 5 minutes 30 seconds


DATE: 2024-05-13

Brain health is important at all ages, but older adults are particularly vulnerable to cognitive decline. (1) Memory deficits, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease affect many older adults. No matter what age you are now, it’s a good time to think about boosting brain health with exercise. 

Physical activity is good for the brain in so many ways, from helping you sleep better to reducing mental health symptoms. It can also prevent or lower the risk of cognitive decline. Find out what the research says and what types of exercise are best for brain health. 

Any Type of Physical Activity is Good for Brain Health

Everyone knows that exercise is good for your heart and cardiovascular health, but research has proven the link between heart and brain health. (2) If it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain too. This means that any kind of physical activity boosts improves brain health.

Many other studies have shown how good exercise is for your brain: 

  • Studies show that exercise improves brain health through several mechanisms. It increases blood flow to the brain, promotes the growth of new neurons, and supports connections between neurons. (3)

  • A study published in 2020 compared adults over the age of 45 with different activity levels. The researchers found that cognitive decline was twice as common in inactive adults as compared to those who were regularly active. (4)

  • A recent study found that even late in life, physical activity improves brain function. Adults who are active into their later years have more brain proteins that support neuron connections. This improves cognition and memory, even in people who already have signs of dementia. This research shows it’s never too late to start exercising. (5)

Learn more about how exercise increases connections in the brain

What Exercise Programs That Promote Brain Health Are Best? 

Truly, any type of exercise will support brain health, but some types might be better than others. Aim to be active in any way that keeps you interested, engaged, and committed to working out regularly. The brain loves variety, so change it up and try new things. According to research, these types of exercise might be best for boosting brain power: 

1. Aerobic Exercise

This is what most people think of when they consider working out. Exercise that gets your heart pumping and increases oxygen use in the body is aerobic, and it’s great for your heart and your brain. A brisk walk or a jog, cycling, swimming laps, and using cardio equipment at the gym will give you an aerobic workout. 

Most research on the impact of exercise on brain health has involved aerobic activity. It increases blood flow to the brain and even triggers growth in specific areas related to cognition. Aerobic exercise has been shown to increase blood vessels, neuron connections, and the proteins neurons need. 

While physical exercise is good for the brain, it turns out that brain exercises are also good for athletic performance. Learn how to train your brain for endurance

2. Strength Training

Everyone should be doing some type of strength training in addition to cardio or aerobic exercise. It boosts muscle mass and slows or reverses the decline in muscle tissue we all experience with aging. Research also suggests that this kind of workout can boost brain power. 

One study found that resistance training increased the size of the hippocampus in participants. (6) This is part of the brain involved in learning and memory. Keep in mind that strength training is not just lifting weights. You can gain strength using resistance bands or doing bodyweight exercises, including yoga. 

3. Tai Chi and Yoga

Recent research has shown that exercise does not have to be intense or elevate the heart rate significantly to benefit the brain. Tai Chi involves slow and gentle movements and poses done with controlled breathing and in a meditative state. 

Tai Chi is a great type of exercise for older adults. It reduces falls because it builds strength and improves balance. Some studies have also found that Tai Chi is good for brain health. They have found that it can improve cognitive skills in older adults both with and without dementia. This may be due to the combination of physical exercise with mental focus. (7)

Like Tai Chi, yoga is gentler than many other types of exercises, but still boosts brain health, according to research. There are many different ways to practice yoga, but when combined with intentional breathing and a strong mental focus, it can be great for brain health. 

4. Dancing

Dancing is great exercise. From Zumba classes to ballroom lessons, dance gets the body moving but also requires mental focus. Dancing is a skill to be learned, so it combines cognitive functioning with physical activity. If you dance with friends or with a partner, you also get the benefits of social connections. 

Humans are social animals, so socializing can be just as important for brain health as exercise and learning. Research has proven that social connections improve cognitive function and other aspects of brain health. 

A recent study found that older adults who regularly engage in social activities have more gray matter in areas of the brain associated with dementia. (8) This means they are less susceptible to dementia and cognitive decline. The social activities that promoted brain health included everything from volunteering to participating in church. Dancing in a class or with a partner is a great way to combine exercise and socializing, two factors that support a healthy brain. 

5. Walking

Walking is one of the simplest and easiest ways to get more exercise. It doesn’t require a gym membership or any equipment beyond a good pair of shoes. Brisk walking that elevates the heart rate is best, but any attempt to get more active is good for the brain. 

To get the most brain benefits from walking, include a couple of other factors that support brain health. Go for a walk with friends to get the benefits of socialization. Instead of meeting up for coffee or a drink, combine social time with a walk. 

If possible, go for a walk in a park or on trails to get the benefits of being immersed in nature. Being outside boosts mood and is good for mental health. It can also improve cognition. Studies have shown that simply being near green spaces can improve cognitive function in adults and development in children. By walking out in nature, you get a brain boost from the exercise and time spent outdoors. 

How Much Exercise Do I Need to Boost Brain Health? 

Experts have not released guidelines on the amount of exercise that is ideal to improve brain health or counteract cognitive decline. Partly, this is because it’s a new area of research. Another reason is that everyone is different and reacts uniquely to exercise. 

A good standard to follow is the general recommendation for exercise outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC recommends adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. 

Or, get the same health benefits from 75 minutes of vigorous exercise. An example of moderate exercise includes walking at a brisk pace. Running or jogging would be considered vigorous for most people. 

An easy schedule to follow is to break up the 150 minutes into five 30-minute workouts each week. The CDC also recommends at least two strength training sessions per week in addition to aerobic workouts. 

There are so many good reasons to exercise regularly. Boosting brain health and slowing age-related cognitive decline are sometimes overlooked. If you train clients of any age, but especially older adults, this information can be motivating and keep them coming back for more sessions. 

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  1. Changing Your Aging Brain Can Be As Simple as Child’s Play! (2017, February 17). Functional Aging Institute. https://functionalaginginstitute.com/changing-your-aging-brain-can-be-as-simple-as-childs-play/

  2. Nania, R. (2023, June 29). To protect your brain, take care of your heart. AARP. https://www.aarp.org/health/brain-health/info-2020/heart-health-brain-health.html

  3. Cabral, D. F., Rice, J., Morris, T. P., Rundek, T., Pascual‐Leone, Á., & Gomes‐Osman, J. (2019). Exercise for Brain Health: An Investigation into the Underlying Mechanisms Guided by Dose. Neurotherapeutics (Online), 16(3), 580–599. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13311-019-00749-w

  4. Omura, J. D., Brown, D. R., McGuire, L. C., Taylor, C. A., Fulton, J. E., & Carlson, S. A. (2020). Cross-sectional association between physical activity level and subjective cognitive decline among US adults aged ≥45 years, 2015. Preventive Medicine (1972. Print), 141, 106279. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2020.106279

  5. Casaletto, K. B., Ramos-Miguel, A., VandeBunte, A., Memel, M., Buchman, A. S., Bennett, D. A., & Honer, W. G. (2022). Late‐life physical activity relates to brain tissue synaptic integrity markers in older adults. Alzheimer’s & Dementia, 18(11), 2023–2035. https://doi.org/10.1002/alz.12530

  6. Broadhouse, K. M., Singh, M. F., Suo, C., Gates, N., Wang, W., Brodaty, H., Jain, N., Wilson, G. C., Meiklejohn, J., Singh, N., Baune, B. T., Baker, M. K., Foroughi, N., Wang, Y., Kochan, N. A., Ashton, K. J., Brown, M. A., Li, Z., Mavros, Y., . . . Valenzuela, M. (2020). Hippocampal plasticity underpins long-term cognitive gains from resistance exercise in MCI. NeuroImage. Clinical, 25, 102182. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nicl.2020.102182

  7. Tai Chi: What you need to know. (n.d.). NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/tai-chi-what-you-need-to-know

Felix, C., Rosano, C., Zhu, X., Flatt, J. D., & Rosso, A. L. (2020). Greater social engagement and greater gray matter microstructural integrity in brain regions relevant to dementia. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 76(6), 1027–1035. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa173

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