Exercise helps older people stay sharp and remember more

Jennifer Focht, M.A.


Exercise has so many health benefits: it can help prevent osteoporosis, lower cholesterol, reduce the pain of fibromyalgia, ease the symptoms of menopause, and reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, colon cancer, and prostate cancer. But did you know that physical activity is also a fountain of youth for our brains? Some research suggests that, just by being active, seniors can improve their ability to think, focus, plan, and recall words, as well as perform many other brain activities.

These brain activities (also called cognitive function)1 include:

  • Language
  • Thought
  • Memory
  • Executive function (the ability to plan and carry out tasks)
  • Judgment
  • Attention
  • Perception
  • Remembered skills
  • Ability to have a purposeful life

Most of the research recommends aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise refers to any activity that increases your breathing and heart rate. This could be walking quickly, running, biking, dancing, or any number of other fun activities.

What kind of exercise? How much?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults ages 65 and older who are “generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions” participate in at least 2.5 hours of “moderate-intensity aerobic activity” every week and total body muscle-strengthening activities 2 or more days every week.2

If 2.5 hours per week won’t fit into your schedule, an alternative is doing 1 hour and 15 minutes  of “vigorous-intensity aerobic activity” every week while still including muscle-strengthening activities on a couple of days.

The exercise doesn’t have to be done all at one time. You can exercise just 10 minutes at a time as long as it adds up. These recommendations are the minimum you need to do to get health benefits. If you can do more, go for it!

Can’t I just do crossword puzzles, Sudoku and other cognitive exercises to improve my cognitive health?

Giving your brain a workout can help you think and remember better but getting physical exercise is just as important. When older adults get a lot of exercise, a part of their brain (the hippocampus) expands, resulting in better memory.3  A study published in 2013 found that older people who followed a mental AND physical exercise program had the biggest improvements in brain performance.4  If you want to stay sharp, make physical activity—even if it’s just walking and stretching—a part of your day.

Bottom line

When cognitive skills deteriorate, it becomes harder for an older person to maintain overall health and manage day to day activities like preparing meals, bathing, and eating. When an older person is no longer “with it,” it makes communication difficult and care more burdensome for their loved ones. To get the most out of your “golden years,” talk to your doctor about creating an exercise plan involving both physical and mental exercise that is safe and will work for you. Remember to avoid dehydration, skin cancer (from exposure to the sun), and over-training as you exercise.

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Healthy Brain Initiative: A National Public Health Road Map to Maintaining Cognitive Health. Available at href=”http://www.cdc.gov/aging/pdf/TheHealthyBrainInitiative.pdf”>http://www.cdc.gov/aging/pdf/TheHealthyBrainInitiative.pdf. Accessibility verified April 8, 2013.  
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How Much Physical Activity Do Older Adults Need? Available at href=”http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/olderadults.html”>http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/olderadults.html. Accessibility verified April 9, 2013.  
  3. Erickson KI, Prakash RS, Voss MW, Chaddock L, Hu L, Morris KS, White SM, Wójcicki TR, McAuley E, Kramer AF. Aerobic fitness is associated with hippocampal volume in elderly humans. Hippocampus. 2009 Oct;19(10):1030-9. doi: 10.1002/hipo.20547.  
  4. Barnes, DE, Santos-Modesitt, W, Poelke, G, Kramer, AF, Castro, C, Middleton, LE, Yaffe, K. The mental activity and eXercise (MAX) trial: A randomized controlled trial to enhance cognitive function in older adults. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2013; doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.189