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Your Brain May Be the Key to Exercising

Stimulating your brain may help you get off the couch


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There is plenty of research that exercise benefits the brain, but could having a healthy brain also push us to exercise?

Research that has looked at ways to slow the mental and physical decline that begins at age 50 has focused on the link between exercise and improved thinking skills. One recent example is a May 2020 Canadian study published in the journal Neurology that suggests that older adults, even couch potatoes, may perform better on memory tests after six months of aerobic exercise.

But Swiss researchers wondered if this emphasis on exercise helping the brain was only half the story. In the chicken-and-egg question of which should come first, exercising your muscles or exercising your brain, maybe it’s the brain that is key to keeping us active.

To help answer these questions, researcher Boris Cheval of the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva, decided to look at whether a change in older adults’ level of thinking skills was linked to a corresponding change in the level of physical activity.

Cheval and his colleagues had done previous research suggesting that the brain may play a role in undermining our motivation to exercise. How else to explain the disconnect between knowing that exercise is good for us and the fact that few of us exercise regularly?

But what if the brain could also ward off becoming inactive? After all, where does the motivation to get up and take a walk or join an exercise class come from, if not the brain?

In the October 2021 study, Cheval and his team used Swiss government data from more than 100,000 adults ages 50 to 90 whose physical activity level and thinking skills were measured every two years over a 12-year period.

To measure cognitive abilities, participants were tested on memory recall (listening to a list of 10 words and then reciting as many as they remembered afterward) and verbal fluency (naming as many animals as possible in 60 seconds).

Participants were also asked how often they were moderately physically active — including gardening, cleaning the car or going for a walk — using a four-point scale: more than once a week, once a week, one to three times a month, hardly ever.

The findings, published in the journal Health Psychology, showed that lower scores on cognitive tests were linked to “lower levels and steeper decreases in moderate physical activity,” the researchers wrote.

In other words, if you ignore doing activities to stimulate and challenge your brain, you may be less likely to get up off that couch and do the physical exercise you — and your brain — really need.

What it comes down to, Cheval told AARP, is that “a healthy brain is needed to ensure healthy physical habits, [and] both are crucial to ensure healthy aging.”

Both he and coauthor Matthieu Boisgontier, of the University of British Columbia, say the interdependent relationship between mental activity and physical activity can be either “a vicious or a virtuous cycle.”

“Keeping a cognitively stimulating and physically active lifestyle is the best way to make sure it’s a virtuous circle,” Boisgontier says.

What you need to know:

  • Maintain your brain. Don’t overlook the importance of keeping your brain challenged and stimulated to help you stay physically active, Cheval says. Read, stay social, learn new skills through online classes or videos that help you venture out of your comfort zone. 
  • Try the “miracle cure.” There are myriad health benefits associated with physical activity — from living longer to reducing depression — which is why the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the coordinating body for medical schools in the United Kingdom and Ireland, has called exercise a “miracle cure.” So start slow if you haven’t exercised in a while, but keep it up. Any physical activity is better than none, health experts say.
  • It’s not too late. It’s not too late to become more physically active, even for older adults who have been sedentary, Boisgontier says. He points to the findings of a March 2019 analysis of data from 315,000 adults ages 50 to 71 in a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-AARP study. Much to their surprise, NIH researchers found that increasing physical activity in late adulthood was associated with health benefits similar to those of people who had been active since early adulthood. Both lowered their risk of death from all causes, researchers reported.

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