The 8 Best Exercises to Protect Your Brain Health As You Age

Exercise can help boost cognitive function and protect your brain from age-related memory loss.
Image Credit: Lane Oatey / Blue Jean Images/blue jean images/GettyImages

Having a regular exercise routine plays a big role in healthy aging, reducing your risk of developing conditions like diabetes and heart disease later in life.

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But what you might not realize is that every time you lace up your running shoes or fire up your spin bike, you're also protecting your brain from age-related memory loss, including Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

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Exercise affects your brain just as much as it affects your body. And it doesn't have to be overly complicated! Starting a simple aerobic workout program may help improve memory, focus, organization, planning and multi-tasking (aka your executive function) in older adults at risk for cognitive decline, according to a January 2019 study in ​Neurology.

Read on to learn the eight best exercises for brain health and why working out can be so awesome for your mind.

1. Exergaming

For once, screen time may actually be good for your health. Exergaming blends digital video games with fitness for a fun new form of exercise. Virtual reality could enhance the cognitive health benefits of exercise in older adults by improving memory and concentration, according to a January 2019 study in ​Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health.

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You may be familiar with the first generation of exergaming, including Wii sports and Dance, Dance Revolution. But now, a new breed of exergames is on the rise. For example, Ring Fit Adventure takes virtual fitness to a new level (pun intended) with games specifically designed to integrate exercise into video games.

2. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts aren't only good for your physical health; they're one of the best exercises for brain health, too.

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In fact, HIIT is associated with greater brain function than steady-state cardio exercise in young adults, according to a small February 2020 study in ​Brain Sciences.​ Pushing yourself to a higher intensity may trigger a release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that contributes to brain health.

"I call BDNF MiracleGro for the brain," says John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and expert in neuropsychiatry. "It's like a fertilizer that keeps our brain cells young and perky, protects us from stress and helps our brain grow."

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3. Trail Running

When it comes to the best physical exercises for your brain, you may get more bang for your buck when you exercise outside.

Spending time in nature may enhance memory, attention and creativity, according to a July 2019 review in ​Science Advances.​ Being out in nature is also associated with reduced stress, depression and anxiety symptoms, the review found.

"Heading outdoors optimizes the benefits of exercise on the brain," Dr. Ratey says. Whether you go hiking, snowboarding or mountain biking, make it al fresco.

4. Yoga

Turns out, downward dogging may help sharpen your mind, too, not just your balance. Getting your Om on is associated with improved attention, processing speed (how long it takes to do a mental task) and decision making, per a May 2021 review in ​Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

Bonus points if the class includes meditation: Studies show that people who follow a regular meditation practice have more outer layers in their brains, which may increase their ability to process information, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

5. Tai Chi

Another top exercise for brain health is tai chi. A September 2019 study in ​Nature​ suggests that practicing this low-intensity mind-body exercise may help improve memory and attention, making it a top physical exercise for brain health. Tai chi boosts the concentration of blood oxygen in the brain, increases cognitive activity and enhances brain connectivity.

This might be because tai chi is a type of exercise called neuromotor training, which emphasizes balance, core strength, stability and agility. "The better balanced you are, the better your brain works," Dr. Ratey says. "Doing a form of exercise that improves your equilibrium helps you stay on task and regulate your emotions."

6. Dance

Time to channel your inner Beyonce. A July 2017 study in ​PLOS One​ demonstrates that dance training has the potential to increase brain volume in older people, even more than conventional aerobic workouts, like walking and cycling. According to the study, dancing also improved neuroplasticity, which means that the brains of dancers are better able to grow and change in response to experiences.

That's because dancing promotes coordination, balance, endurance, interaction and communication. This allowed the participants to tap into their brains' learning processes.

So fire up your TikTok and bust a move.

7. Team Sports

Whether you join a local volleyball league or ultimate frisbee team, group activities pack a cognitive double punch: You get all the brain benefits of exercise, plus the added perks of socializing.

Social activities are associated with greater working memory, processing speed and decision-making skills in older adults, per a December 2017 review in ​Systematic Reviews.

Team sports help increase your brain's oxytocin, a hormone that helps you bond with others, according to Dr. Ratey says. "I refer to social connection as 'vitamin C' because it's the most important factor when it comes to healthy aging; it is three times more powerful than anything else at keeping us physically and mentally young."

Team sports not your thing? Opt for a partner sport like tennis, take a Zumba class or join a running group.

8. Strength Training

Resistance training builds muscles ​and​ your brain. Strength training can lead to brain changes that are associated with improved executive function, according to a July 2019 review in the ​European Review of Aging and Physical Activity​.

People with Alzheimer's disease have lower levels of irisin (a brain hormone) than mentally healthy folks, according to a January 2019 study in ​Nature Medicine.​ This hormone is released when you resistance train, says Ryan Glatt, CPT a certified personal trainer and brain health coach at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute's Brain Health Center.

Although any type of resistance training has a positive effect, free weights win the blue ribbon. The more force you use to lift weights, the more your body releases brain growth factors and hormones, Glatt says. Doing only body-weight exercises may not have the same benefits.

Glatt points out that free weights are also stronger brain boosters than weight machines because they require greater attention. It's easier to space out when you've got a machine supporting your body.

Glatt recommends compound movements, which work multiple muscle groups in different directions and require a little more thought and memory to perform. For instance, doing a lunge to a curl to an overhead press is more complex than a simple biceps curl.

How Working Out Helps Your Brain

As you get older, your noggin decreases a bit in size and function, according to Dr. Ratey. In response to reduced brain activity, the capillaries in your brain begin to shrink in size, restricting blood flow. This can cause your memory, reaction time, impulse control and decision-making skills to decline.

But breaking a sweat is one of the best defenses against age-related mental decline, according to Glatt. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and helps quicken your brain activity. As a result, exercise can slow decline and improve executive function.

But that's not all. It's also helpful for preventing neurological and neurodegenerative conditions like dementia, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, Glatt says.

But how much physical activity do you need to benefit your brain? Following the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans is a good place to start: Aim for 150 to 300 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise (like walking or hiking), Glatt says. This amounts to a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Or, go for 75 minutes of high-intensity training.

If 30 minutes doesn't feel doable, remember that any amount of activity is better than nothing. You may still get brain health benefits from getting any bit of activity in your day, even if you don't hit the total time, Glatt says.

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